Playoff Preview: Royals return to playoffs

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When they host Oakland in the AL wild-card game Tuesday night, the Royals will snap baseball’s longest streak without a playoff appearance. Every other team has played in October at least once since the Royals’ last trip to the postseason in 1985, including all four expansion teams who debuted since then. Thanks to recent turnarounds by historically troubled franchises like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington (née Montreal), the longest playoff-less streak now belongs to Toronto, which hasn’t made the postseason since winning the 1993 World Series.

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MLB draft pick success rate

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About two-thirds of first-round draft picks have reached the majors in recent decades, but the success rate drops off steeply from there, falling below one-third by the fifth round and one-fifth by the 10th. MLB recently shortened the draft from 50 to 40 rounds, eliminating a few 4-percent longshots from the back end of the draft (most likely converting them to undrafted free agents). Note that this data includes all players drafted, regardless of whether or not they signed that same year.

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Clayton Kershaw’s arsenal

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PITCHf/x data via BaseballSavant.com

It’s hard to find a pitching leaderboard in 2014 without Clayton Kershaw at the top. Entering the final week of the season, the lefty has a 1.80 ERA with peripherals to match, including 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings and a league-best 1.87 FIP. The above heat maps show Kershaw’s pitch mix by count; like all pitchers, he relies on his fastball when behind (and even on 0-0, when he throws fastballs 87% of the time), but splits his top three offerings almost equally in strikeout situations.

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MLB teams by attendance

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Three stadiums have been sold-out in nearly every game this season: AT&T Park in San Francisco, Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and Fenway Park in Boston. By the official figures (which come with a heavy dose of salt), Giants home games have been standing-room-only in aggregate, averaging 41,593 fans with a capacity of 41,503.

On a raw basis, the Dodgers have been baseball’s best-drawing team by a fair margin, with 46,506 fans per game in cavernous Dodger Stadium. Cleveland and Tampa Bay are in a close fight for last place in the capacity standings, practically even as of Tuesday night. In general, better teams tend to fill closer to capacity, but it’s far from a perfect relationship.

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Javier Baez’s record-setting whiffs

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Data via the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index (thanks to a new feature this week)

Chicago Cubs rookie Javier Baez has 72 strikeouts this season (through Monday), the most for a player in his first 40 games — and it’s not even close. Prior to this season, no player had whiffed more than 55 times in his first 40 games, although Jon Singleton briefly claimed the “record” with 59 before Baez was promoted in August.

Baez has had more plate appearances than anyone else in the top 10, so he’s less of an outlier on a rate basis; he and Jacksons Brett and Bo each struck out in about 48% of their trips to the plate. Still, the strikeouts raise questions about Baez, a consensus top-10 prospect entering the season. (Z.W. Martin broke down Baez’s out-of-control swing today on Deadspin.)

It’s no coincidence that seven of the top 10 whiffers have come in the last five seasons (including three in 2014) — MLB’s strikeout rate has risen dramatically over time, a trend that has continued this season. Apparently, Bo Jackson was ahead of his time.

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Ortiz’s homers

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Pitch f/x data via BaseballSavant.com; original image via GazetteNet.com

The defending MLB champions may be struggling in 2014, but it’s no fault of their timeless designated hitter — 38-year-old David Ortiz has driven in 17% of the Red Sox’s runs, more than any other AL player. Above, the pitch types and locations of Ortiz’ 32 homers (through Sunday). Eighteen of Papi’s dingers have come on fastballs, ten on breaking balls (mainly sliders) and four on change-ups; most of the offspeed pitches have been away, while the fastballs have been middle-in.

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MLB standings, visualized

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I like to keep in mind just how small the gap in performance between MLB teams really is — even the historically greatest teams lost about 30 percent of their games, which is almost unique in sports. This chart of each team’s winning percentage (as of Saturday) shows how similar most teams are, as wins and losses that will decide pennant races are reduced to tiny slivers of a season-long pie. Baseball’s second-best team (Baltimore) and second-worst (Arizona and Colorado) are separated by just one win every five games.

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