Can contact rate help us predict what's going to happen in the playoffs? If so, that's one big check in the Tigers' favor as they head to the American League Championship Series.
Before the Divisional Series began, Joe Sheehan noted in his newsletter (sub req, info here):
"I checked all postseason series -- actual series, not the Coin Flip Round -- dating to 2009, when league K/PA jumped above 18% for the first time. ... Of the last eight pennant winners, five have ranked in the top five in MLB in contact rate, and just two have been outside the top ten."
Note: Sheehan had some charts I cut so as not to copy too much.
In other words: If you put the ball in play, good things might happen. If you fail to put the ball in play, your season may not end on a happy note.
That's a good thing for the Tigers for two reasons:
First: Because the Tigers have the best contact rate in baseball (FanGraphs), striking out just 16.8 percent of the time. Their ALCS opponents, the Red Sox, strike out 20.5 percent of the time, which ranked 22nd.
Second: Because Tigers pitchers do a great job of limiting contact as well. An MLB-high 23.3 percent of plate appearances against Tigers pitchers end in strikeouts. Breaking it down further, they have an MLB-best 23.2 percent strikeout rate by starters -- Max Scherzer (28.7 percent) and Anibal Sanchez (27.1) lead the way -- and are sixth in strikeout rate from relievers at 23.7 percent. Despite the lower rankings, Tigers relievers are still the best among teams remaining in the playoffs.
In the past two seasons, the team with the better contact rate went 12-2, according to Sheehan. (In 2010, it was a 4-3 edge in favor of contact rate). In this year's postseason, the team who entered a series with the better contact rate won three of the four Division Series matchups.
Naturally the Red Sox, who overcame the Rays. Tampa Bay had the fourth-best contact rate in the playoffs and 10th overall this season.
Thanks largely to Austin Jackson, the Tigers' contact rate worsened in the ALDS. He managed to strike out 13 times in 20 at bats, walked once and had two hits. The Tigers struck out 38 times in 178 PA (21.3 percent) as a whole. (Oakland struck out 57 times, or about 31 percent of at bats).
In the other ALDS, Boston struck out 33 times in 160 PA (20.6 percent) against TB. The Rays struck out 23 percent of the time, so the better contact rate in the series did win. It was just reversed from the regular season figures.
Just to keep it interesting, let's note the Red Sox pitchers are no slouches when it comes to strikeouts, either. Boston ranked seventh in K% at 21.1 percent during the regular season.
Big picture: Detroit pitchers could feast against a strikeout prone Red Sox club. And if the Tigers (read: Austin Jackson) can find a way to make better contact than they did against the A's, Detroit might be able to punch a ticket back to the World Series.