Sunday, October 14, 2007

Livan Hernandez and myths of the postseason

I've been a Giants fan for a long time: my first sentence was "Go Giants, beat Reds." Therefore, I remember all too well the lesson I learned in 2002: when you ask the gods to do something, you'd better watch our for ironic compliance.

In 2002, I had been arguing for years that there was no reason to think that Barry Bonds, then widely regarded as a postseason choker, was a different player under pressure. Here is a post I wrote in 1997 to that effect; there were many others. In 2002, Barry got his big chance to play in the postseason again, and he was ridiculously great: excellent in two playoff series, then about as good as anyone had ever been in a World Series: .471/.700/1.294.

While the gods granted my request to demonstrate that we should base postseason expectations on regular season performance, however, they also had Livan Hernandez prove the point in the other direction. Hernandez then enjoyed a reputation as a tremendous postseason pitcher, and indeed, he had pitched a two brilliant playoff games early in his career. But he had been declining as a pitcher, and though his postseason W-L record and ERA had held up, his supporting statistics had collapsed; the Livan pitching for the Giants was clearly not the Livan of 1997. In 2002, Livan pitched a solid game in the first series, a very shaky but lucky game in the second (6.1 IP, 10 baserunners, 0 strikeouts, 2 ER), and two utterly disastrous games in the World Series.

He pitched less than six innings total in the two games and gave up nine earned runs. Surely, thought I, this is the end of his reputation as a postseason force.

But it wasn't. As the Diamondbacks entered this postseason, the talk started again: don't pay attention to the regular season numbers, we heard, because Livan has another gear in October!

Indeed, Hernandez had a good postseason W-L record, but that was more a function of luck and run support than excellence: his regular season and postseason ERAs were nearly identical. And the best part of that postseason record came a full decade ago, when he was a much better pitcher in all situations than he is now.

But none of this stops's Mark Simon from saying, in a blurb that can't be linked directly, that Livan is "one of baseball's best postseason pitchers":

It will be up to one of baseball's best postseason pitchers to try to cool off the Rockies in Game 3 of the NLCS on Sunday, with Livan Hernandez trying to get the Diamondbacks a desperately needed victory. Hernandez doesn't exactly have the best history at Coors Field, but he's been known to dial it up a notch when it counts.

Anything can happen in a small sample, but this is a myth that deserves to die.