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3 Observations From the 2020 MLB Playoffs To Take Into 2021

The 2020 postseason, like just about everything else this year, was unlike any other.

The addition of the best-of-three Wild Card Series, no off days within series and games played at neutral sites made for a unique postseason that scrambled long-held practices and assumptions about October baseball.

Here are three observations from covering the 2020 postseason, and what lessons may apply moving forward.

1. Teams trusted young pitchers more than ever

Young pitchers have played key roles in the postseason ever since the Pirates started rookie Babe Adams in Game 7 of the 1909 World Series. Still, the volume of young pitchers playing featured roles in 2020 was notable. Consider:

  • No pitcher had ever made his MLB debut in the postseason. This year, two did. Rays lefthander Shane McClanahan, 23, became the first when he debuted against the Yankees in the ALDS. One day later, Padres lefthander Ryan Weathers, 20, became the second when he debuted against the Dodgers in the NLDS.
  • There were three matchups where both starting pitchers were under the age of 25 through the Championship Series, the most of any postseason in the divisional era (1969-present). That included Game 7 of the NLCS, the first winner-take-all game in postseason history where both starting pitchers were rookies.
  • A record eight rookies—Braves righthanders Ian Anderson (twice) and Kyle Wright, Dodgers righthander Dustin May (three times), Marlins righthander Sixto Sanchez, White Sox righthander Dane Dunning, Astros righthander Luis Garcia, Athletics lefthander Jesus Luzardo and Padres lefthander Adrian Morejon—received starts in potential elimination games through the Championship Series. That broke the previous record of seven starts by rookies in potential elimination games, set in 2013.

The prevalence of so many young pitchers was largely due to the addition of the Wild Card Series, postseason rosters being expanded to 28 players and the elevated rate of pitcher injuries during the regular season. Even so, the end result was young pitchers playing an outsized role in the 2020 playoffs.

2. Home runs win . . . in part

Teams that outhomered their opponents were 31-4 through the Championship Series, reinforcing the notion that slugging and home runs are what win in the postseason.

That’s not exactly the entire story.

In the 20 seasons between 2000 and 2019, the eventual World Series champion ranked top three in the postseason in batting average 16 times, on-base percentage 15 times and slugging percentage 10 times.

The median finish for the eventual World Series champion during the postseason was second in batting average, second in OBP and fourth in slugging.

That hasn’t changed much recently. Since the start of the home run surge in 2017, the median finish for the World Series champion each postseason was third in batting average and fifth in slugging.

On the whole, teams that win the World Series tend to rank higher in batting average in the postseason than slugging percentage.

Still, teams still have to be good at both hitting for average and power in the postseason. Since 2000, no team has finished in the bottom half of its postseason field in batting average and won the World Series. Just three teams in the bottom half in slugging percentage have won.

3. Neutral sites are not the future

Fans weren’t allowed in ballparks for the Wild Card Series, but with the higher seeds playing in their home parks, at least the areas surrounding the stadiums were lively.

In San Diego, for example, the Padres organized socially-distanced watch parties in their parking lots. Bars and restaurants with patios in the Gaslamp District surrounding Petco Park became outdoor hubs for people to watch the games. There was considerable buzz and excitement surrounding the park, and the screams and cheers from the fans outside the stadium could be heard during games and for hours afterward.

Once the Division Series began and teams shifted to neutral sites, that disappeared. Games were treated with a general indifference by the local populace, creating the peculiar experience of walking into a decisive, winner-take-all playoff game and people milling about as if no game was being played at all. There is nothing quite like a decisive Giancarlo Stanton grand slam being met with silence (save for artificial, ill-timed crowd noise) to dispense with the notion that baseball without fans is the same as baseball with fans. At least when a team was playing in its home city, the cheers from such an occurrence could be heard outside the park.

The fans at home watched and cheered for their teams passionately. The fans in the cities games were being played were indifferent.

Even with some fans allowed at neutral sites, as they were for the NLCS and World Series in Arlington, Texas, nothing came close to replicating the atmosphere of an entire city when its team is hosting a home playoff game.

Playing games at neutral sites was deemed necessary in 2020 because of a pandemic. Let’s never do it again.

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