Sweating the details
Postseason success often comes down to scouting. That means knowing your opponent better than they do.
Serendipity once placed a major-league advance scout in the same hotel bar with the star player of the team he worked for, and the two men chatted genially about their work. The scout had always wondered how much the intelligence he gathered over the long summer was utilized, and so he asked the star player -- a noted slugger -- if he looked at the reports on his own.
The star player admitted that he did not. The regular season is too long for that kind of intense preparation, the star said.
But everything changes in the postseason. Each at-bat could be the difference between a Division Series elimination or a World Series championship, and consequently, players meet constantly in October to review scouting reports.
Scouts give a dissertation of their findings, presenting binders of notes. Pitchers meet separately, the hitters meet, and then starting pitchers talk to their catchers and pitching coaches, formulating a plan of attack for each opposing batter. Star sluggers who might have skimmed the scouting reports before an April series in Miller Park ask detailed questions in these pre-series conferences. And then it becomes a matter of applying the knowledge and executing.
It is partly because of this preparation that baseball's playoffs and World Series bear little resemblance to the game that is played throughout the summer -- just as the postseason plays out differently in other sports. Fastbreaking teams who sprint through the NBA's regular season are bogged down in halfcourt playoff quagmires. The NHL goons who punch and slash into March are straight-jacketed by their coaches in April and May, because cheap penalties become unacceptable.
Most major-league teams send out two scouts to prepare reports on other playoff contenders; the Yankees have dispatched six scouts in the past for each of their team evaluations. If a pitcher or hitter has a particular vulnerability, they will notice it. If a pitcher can't hold runners, they'll see it. If a tight hamstring has reduced a base-stealer's lead at first base, they will notice it. If a pitcher likes to finish off hitters with a changeup when the bases are saturated with runners, the scouts will note it.
Luis Gonzalez slammed 57 homers and drove in 142 runs in 2001, hitting .325. But the Yankees' platoon of scouts noticed that Gonzalez's swing had slowed late in the season, creating a hole inside, near his hands. The Yankees' pitchers kept pouring fastballs right near his hands, even hitting him a couple of times, which affected his swing even more. Gonzalez went from being the anchor of the Diamondbacks' lineup to being a near-liability, striking out 11 times in his first 26 at-bats of the World Series -- before he fisted the series-winning single over the Yankees' drawn-in infield.
Good, aggressive hitters who refuse to take walks during the regular season become targets in the postseason, because pitchers will simply not throw those hitters strikes unless absolutely compelled. The Texas Rangers pummeled the Yankees' pitchers during the regular season in 1998 and 1999, and then were all but shut down in the postseason, because Andy Pettitte, David Cone and David Wells exploited the reckless hacks of hitters like Juan Gonzalez and Ivan Rodriguez.
But even the best intelligence is essentially worthless unless the players can use their knowledge. "I can talk until I'm blue in the face about tendencies," said one veteran scout, "and it's all a waste of time unless you've got players capable of implementing and executing."
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.