Does Limping into the MLB Playoffs Really Matter?
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Every year, somebody (or a million somebodies) always points out that it's not necessarily the best team that will win the World Series.
No, it will surely be the hottest team instead.
If true, the Oakland A's, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees are all looking pretty good. They finished the season playing some quality baseball.
On the flip-side, teams like the Texas Rangers, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants are pretty much screwed. The Rangers finished their season by dropping seven out of nine. The Reds finished their season with a mediocre 6-6 showing in their last 12 games. The Giants went a mere 5-5 in their last 10 games.
Since these teams finished the year on a down note, they may as well just head home and make plans to go golfing. I mean, if they're not going to take the playoffs seriously...
Alright, I'll turn the sarcasm off now and ask a serious question. Is there anything to the notion that teams who go limping into the playoffs are categorically doomed to fall short? Or is that just some thing that some guy said once that probably isn't true?
Well, we know for a fact that it's not always true. Two teams in particular stand out as beacons of hope for clubs that are going limping into the postseason this year.
And here they are...
The 2000 New York Yankees
In 1998, the Yankees were really, really good. They won 114 games, and then lost just two games on their way to a World Series title.
In 1999, the Yankees were really, really good once again. They won 98 games, and this time they lost just one game on their way to a World Series title.
The 2000 Yankees, on the other hand...Not so much.
The 2000 Yankees only won 87 games, and their Pythagorean record (h/t Baseball-Reference.com) says they were lucky to win that many. Given how many runs they scored and how many they allowed, they should have won only 85 games.
At least they managed to make the playoffs in the end, as it didn't look like they were going to be able to for a while there. The Bombers ended the 2000 regular season on a seven-game losing streak. Dating back even further, their season ended with them losing 16 out of their last 21 games. What was once a nine-game lead in the division dwindled down to a 2.5-game lead by the end of the season.
In baseball speak, a streak like that translates to the word "yikes."
And then they went on to win the World Series. Go figure.
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It wasn't easy, mind you, as the Yankees needed five games to dispatch the Oakland A's in the ALDS and six games to dispatch future Yankee Alex Rodriguez and the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS. They even dropped a game to the New York Mets in the World Series, meaning they ultimately lost two more games in the 2000 postseason than they did in the previous two postseasons combined.
They ended up winning all the same because they were able to battle. They clearly didn't have the talent advantage that they had in 1998 or 1999, but they still had the desire to win. In the postseason, that doesn't count for nothing.
So the 2000 Yankees are one team that put a bad regular season finish behind them in a hurry. One more comes immediately to mind.
The 2006 St. Louis Cardinals
I'm about to sound like a broken record here, but oh well.
The 2004 Cardinals were really, really good. They won 105 games in the regular season and went all the way to the World Series.
Likewise, the 2005 Cardinals were also really, really good. They won 100 games and fell two wins shy of going back to the World Series.
The 2006 Cardinals, on the other hand, kinda sucked.
The '06 Cardinals won only 83 games, by far the fewest of all the postseason teams that year. They were damn lucky to get in too, as they nearly coughed up a seven-game lead in the NL Central with 11 games to go.
The Cards finished the season by winning three out of five, but overall they went into the postseason as losers of nine out of 12. For that matter, they posted losing records in both September and August. It was surely just a matter of time before a superior team put them out of their misery.
Nope. The Cardinals proved to be more than a match for the San Diego Padres, dispatching them in four games in the NLDS. They ran into a bit more trouble against the New York Mets, who had won 97 games during the regular season, but the Cards ultimately got the better of them in seven games thanks to a little help from Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. They then won the World Series against the Detroit Tigers in five games.
The 2006 Cardinals have my vote as the most unspectacular World Series champion in recent memory. Sure, they had guys like Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Chris Carpenter, but they were also heavily relying on guys like Juan Encarnacion, Ronnie Belliard, Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver. Tony La Russa needed every last bit of his wizardry to lead his club to a title in '06.
Whatever the explanation, it worked. The 2006 Cardinals shall forever stand out that you don't need a sexy regular season record or even a sexy roster in order to win the World Series.
Maybe So, But How Did Other Recent World Series Teams Fare at the End of the Season?
If the rule is that cold teams can't get hot enough in time to win the World Series, then we've certainly found two exceptions to the rule.
But are they the only ones? For that matter, is the rule even a real rule?
One way to find out would be to take a look at how all the other recent World Series winners finished their respective seasons. Perhaps a pattern will develop.
2001 Arizona Diamondbacks: Arizona went 10-5 in its last 15 games to wrap up the regular season. The D-Backs then took their NLDS series against the Cardinals to the limit before easily dispatching the Atlanta Braves in five games in the NLCS. Then the D-Backs won a classic seven-game tilt against the Yankees in the World Series.
2002 Anaheim Angels: The Angels lost eight of their last 13 games to finish the 2002 regular season, but then caught fire in the playoffs. They lost only two games on their way to the World Series, and then beat the Giants in seven games.
2003 Florida Marlins: The Marlins won 21 of their last 29 games to finish the regular season, and then beat the Giants in the NLDS in four games. They needed seven games (and some help from that one guy) to beat the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS, and then beat the Yankees in six games to win the World Series.
2004 Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox finished the 2004 season by winning seven out of nine, and then they swept the Angels in the ALDS. Then came their epic comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS, and they followed that up with a sweep of the Cardinals in the World Series.
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2005 Chicago White Sox: The White Sox finished the 2005 season by winning five in a row and eight out of 10. Then they dominated their way through the postseason, losing only one game throughout the entire thing.
2007 Boston Red Sox: The 2007 Red Sox won six of their last nine games to wrap up the regular season. Their run through the postseason then mirrored their run through the postseason in 2004: A sweep in the ALDS, a seven-game win in the ALCS, and a sweep in the World Series.
2008 Philadelphia Phillies: Philadelphia won 13 of its final 16 games in the regular season and then lost just three games in the postseason. The Phillies needed just five games to knock off the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series.
2009 New York Yankees: The Yankees won eight of 11 to finish out the 2009 regular season. They then swept the Minnesota Twins in the ALDS and won the ALCS and the World Series in six games apiece.
2010 San Francisco Giants: The 2010 Giants won nine of their last 13 games, and they then went on to beat the Braves in four games in the NLDS and the Phillies in six games in the NLCS. They needed only five games to beat the Rangers in the World Series.
2011 St. Louis Cardinals: The 2011 Cardinals finished the season by winning four out of five and 16 out of 21 overall. Atlanta's collapse allowed them to qualify for the playoffs, and then they scored an unlikely victory over the Phillies in five games in the NLDS. It took six games for them to beat the Milwaukee Brewers in the NLCS, and then seven games to beat the Rangers in the World Series.
Of the 10 teams we just discussed, the only one that stands out as being particularly bad at the end was the 2002 Angels. The other nine teams were all playing pretty good baseball when they wrapped up their seasons, meaning nine of the last 12 World Series winners went into the playoffs on a positive note.
That's 75 percent of them, and that's a pretty tell-tale sign that it's better to be hot than it is to be cold heading into the postseason. The hot teams are indeed the ones that tend to win it all.
What's worth noting is that the 2002 Angels won 16 out of 17 at one point between late August and early September. At the end of the season, they weren't so much cold as they were, you know, human again.
Regardless, here's a question about teams that head into the playoffs on legit cold streaks: Can they at least go far enough to have a shot at winning it all?
That's something the past 12 World Series losers can tell us.
2000 New York Mets: The Mets went into the postseason on a five-game win streak, and they had won nine of 11 overall. They lost only two games on their way to the World Series before they were defeated by the Yankees.
2001 New York Yankees: The Yankees went 7-8-1 (seriously, there was a tie) in their last 16 games to finish out the season. They beat the A's in five games in the ALDS again before beating a 116-win Mariners team in five games in the ALCS. The Diamondbacks were the better team in the World Series, beating them in seven.
2002 San Francisco Giants: The Giants won eight in a row and 10 of 11 to finish out the 2002 season. They needed five games to beat the Braves in the NLDS, but only five to beat the Cardinals in the NLCS. They lost a series they probably should have won against the Angels in the World Series.
2003 New York Yankees: The Yankees won seven of their last 10 games in 2003, and then beat the Twins in four games in the ALDS. The Red Sox gave them everything they could handle in the ALCS, and then the Yankees lost to the Marlins in the World Series in six games.
2004 St. Louis Cardinals: The Cardinals lost five of seven to close the 2004 season. They beat the Dodgers in four games in the NLDS, but needed seven games to beat the Houston Astros in the NLCS. They then got swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.
2005 Houston Astros: The Astros won eight of their last 12 games to finish the 2005 season. They needed four games to beat the Braves in the NLDS, six games to beat the Cardinals in the NLCS, and then they got swept by the White Sox in the World Series.
2006 Detroit Tigers: The Tigers went into the 2006 postseason on a five-game losing streak that put the cap on a mediocre showing for the club throughout August and September. They managed to lose just one game on their way to the World Series before running into the Cardinals.
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2007 Colorado Rockies: The 2007 Rockies won 13 of their final 14 games to force a one-game playoff with the Padres for the NL wild card title. They won that game, and then swept both the Phillies and the Diamondbacks before running into the Red Sox.
2008 Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays won nine of 14 to finish the 2008 season. They dispatched the White Sox in four games in the ALDS and the Red Sox in seven games in the ALCS. The Phillies beat them in five in the World Series.
2009 Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies lost eight of their last 13 games to finish the 2009 season, but then lost only two games on their way to the World Series. They were only a match for the Yankees in the World Series when Cliff Lee pitched.
2010 Texas Rangers: The Rangers went a pedestrian 8-9 in their last 17 games in 2010, and they needed five games to beat the Rays in the ALDS. They then needed six games to beat the Yankees in the ALCS before losing to the Giants in the World Series.
2011 Texas Rangers: The Rangers won six in a row and 10 of 11 to close out the 2011 season. They then beat the Rays in four games in the ALDS and the Tigers in six games in the ALCS. They had the Cardinals beat in the World Series, but they let it slip away.
The trend is a little less obvious here. Of these 12 teams, five went stumbling into the postseason. That's one short of half of them, which is a sign that there's a decent chance that a team that goes stumbling into the postseason can still get to the World Series in this day and age.
And that, of course, would seem to be pretty clear confirmation of the notion that it doesn't really matter how you get into the playoffs so long as you get in, period. Once you're in, anything can happen. Just as they say.
In all, we've discussed 24 different teams here. Nine of them were playing pretty good baseball at the end of the regular season before going on to win the World Series. Another seven were playing pretty good baseball at the end of it all before going on to make an appearance in the World Series.
By my count, that makes 16 of the last 24 Fall Classic participants who went into the postseason on a positive note. That's two-thirds of them.
The conclusion of this little exercise, such as it is, is therefore that, yeah, it kinda helps to be playing good baseball heading into the postseason. There's a pretty good chance that the good baseball will continue.
Whereas if you're a team playing bad or mediocre baseball at the end of the season, your odds of going to the World Series aren't great. Your odds of winning it, meanwhile, are downright bad.
So keep an eye on teams like the Rangers, Reds and Giants. They may not last long in the postseason. There's a little something to the notion that only the hot teams win in the playoffs after all.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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