Does a Hot April Start in MLB Directly Lead to Capturing a Postseason Berth?

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Does a Hot April Start in MLB Directly Lead to Capturing a Postseason Berth?

They, in all their wisdomy wisdom, say that it's not how you start that counts, but how you finish.

Teams around Major League Baseball will want to hear nothing of it when the 2013 season officially kicks off this Sunday night. All 30 of MLB's teams will be looking to kick butts and take names in the first month of the season, and then keep repeating the pattern all the way to October.

But is it that simple? Does a hot start in April automatically translate to a postseason berth?

The short answer: Of course not. With a few exceptions—Craig Kimbrel now and Mariano Rivera before him—nothing in baseball is automatic.

The long answer, however...Well, it's a long answer.

Digging around on Baseball-Reference.com, I found 159 clubs that won at least 15 games in the first month of the season (March games included). I picked out 45 of the hottest starters of the bunch to take a close look at, with the idea being to see how a hot start impacts a team's postseason chances.

If your interest is piqued, just keep reading.

 

The Cream of the Crop

We'll start from the top of the list referenced above and work our way down.

I'll warn that the records aren't in precise order due to how they were presented by Baseball-Reference.com, but that's OK. We're not looking to compare teams here. We're just looking to throw them all out on a big slate and read the signs.

That word of warning issued, here's a look at the cream of the crop of hot first-month starters, complete with their records the previous season, their records the ensuing May, their final records and how they fared in the postseason (if they got there, of course).

Year Team Previous Record March/April Record May Record Final Record Playoffs
2003 Yankees 103-58 21-6 11-17 101-61 Lost WS
2001 Mariners 91-71 20-5 20-7 116-46 Lost ALCS
2008 Diamondbacks 90-72 20-8 11-17 82-80 None
1997 Braves 96-66 19-6 17-11 101-61 Lost NLCS
1998 Padres 76-86 19-7 16-14 98-64 Lost WS
2003 Giants 95-66 19-7 15-13 100-61 Lost NLDS
1971 Giants 86-76 18-5 19-9 90-72 Lost NLCS
1973 Giants 69-86 18-6 14-14 88-74 None
1981 A's 83-79 18-3 13-17 64-45 Lost ALCS
1984 Tigers 92-70 18-2 19-7 104-58 Won WS

Here we have 10 teams. Of these 10 teams, only four regressed to post a record of .500 or worse after lighting the world on fire in the first month of the season. Five went on to win at least 100 games. 

Most importantly, though, eight of these 10 teams went on to make the postseason. Three went to the World Series, and one won the whole shebang.

Not a bad percentage, don't you think? Looks like getting off to a hot start is a good thing.

But at the same time, one is left wondering exactly how much these hot starts really mattered. Only two of the teams in the above table had posted sub-.500 records the year before, meaning we're talking about a sample size that consists largely of teams that were good to begin with.

To boot, the two exceptions aren't really exceptions. The Giants had a good year in 1971 before regressing in 1972 and then bouncing back again in 1973. Likewise, the Padres won 91 games in 1996 before struggling in 1997 and then bouncing back in 1998.

So there are no true surprises represented in the above table. Each of the 10 teams listed came into its respective season with some cred as a quality ballclub, and only two fell short of the postseason.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Bob Melvin didn't last long as Arizona's manager in 2009 after the team plummeted after a hot start in 2008.

The Diamondbacks did the worst of the bunch with their 82-80 record in 2008, but the truth is that, hot start or not, they had that record coming.

The D-Backs may have won 90 games in 2007, but Baseball-Reference.com shows that their Pythagorean record was a mere 79-83. When they ended up going 82-80 in 2008, their Pythagorean record was 82-80.

Translation: The D-Backs went from overachieving from the beginning of 2007 through the end of April in 2008 to having their ship righted to where it probably should have been all along.

Based on all this, it looks like any legitimately good team that gets off to a hot start in April stands a very good chance of making it to the postseason.

But since that's kinda like saying "any center that makes a good move in the post stands a very good chance of putting the ball in the basket," I daresay a deeper dive is warranted. Let's look at a few more teams.

 

The Next Wave

I cut the first table we looked at off after including four teams that won 18 games in the first month of the season, but there are many more teams that managed to do that than only four.

To be exact, 13 other clubs throughout MLB history managed to compile 18 wins in the first month of the season. And here they are.

Year Team Previous March/April May Final Playoffs
1987 Brewers 77-84 18-3 6-18 91-71 None
1989 A's 104-58 18-8 16-10 99-63 Won WS
1998 Rangers 77-85 18-8 15-13 88-74 Lost ALDS
1998 Braves 101-61 18-9 21-9 106-56 Lost NLCS
1998 Red Sox 78-84 18-8 13-14 92-70 Lost ALDS
2000 Braves 103-59 18-6 17-10 95-67 Lost NLDS
2001 Twins 69-93 18-6 16-11 85-77 None
2002 Mariners 116-46 18-8 16-11 93-69 None
2003 Red Sox 93-69 18-9 13-14 95-67 Lost ALCS
2008 Angels 94-68 18-11 15-13 100-62 Lost ALDS
2008 Cardinals 78-84 18-11 15-13 86-76 None
2011 Phillies 97-65 18-8 16-13 102-60 Lost NLDS
2011 Indians 69-93 18-8 14-12 80-82 None

Of these 13 clubs, only three regressed to a major degree in May. That confirms what logic would say about the situation: That it's a lot easier to maintain a hot start than it is to maintain a mega-hot start.

Elsewhere, eight of these 13 clubs went on to make the postseason after their hot starts. Six of those eight came into the season after having posted records over .500 the year before.

You'll notice something about the five clubs that didn't make the postseason. All five may have missed out, but only one of them (2011 Indians) finished with a sub-.500 record. That's a reminder that the luck of the draw is a pretty huge part of baseball.

The 1987 Brewers happened to share an AL East division that featured a 96-win Toronto club and a 98-win Detroit club. The 2002 Mariners shared the AL West with a 103-win A's team and a 99-win Angels team. With better luck, both clubs could have made the postseason, and there'd be only three teams in this discussion that missed out on the postseason rather than five.

Of these teams, the only hot starter that stands out as a legit fluke is the 2011 Indians. They were lousy in 2009 and lousy again in 2010. After starting hot in 2011, they cooled in May and proceeded to be lousy again the rest of the year. 

So what gives?

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Asdrubal Cabrera homered five times in April and five times in May in 2011, but he never hit more than four homers in a month after that.

Well, here's a list of the teams the Indians tackled in the first month of the 2011 season: White Sox, Red Sox, Mariners, Angels, Orioles, Royals, Twins, Tigers.

The number of eventual playoff teams among that lot: one. That was the Tigers, and the Indians played only two games against them at the end of April before the calendar turned to May and their hot start was officially filed away.

What's more, five of the eight opponents the Indians came up against in the first month of the 2011 season ended up finishing below .500. The Red Sox were among the three clubs that finished above .500, but the Indians caught them at a time when they were a complete mess. The Red Sox got swept by the Indians and went on to start 2-10 before righting their ship (which eventually sunk again).

So, again, luck of the draw. The Indians went from being a lousy team to being a team that feasted on an easy schedule to being a lousy team again.

This sample size therefore proves pretty much the same thing the first sample size did. If a legitimately good team gets off to a hot start, odds are it's going to make something of it. If a not-so-good team gets off to a hot start, be wary.

But let's see what the next, next wave of teams has to say.

 

The Next, Next Wave

Very few teams have won 19 or more games in the first month of the season. Only 17 have won as many as 18 games.

But after that, the numbers start to pile up. There have been 31 17-game winners in the first month of the season, close to 50 16-game winners and well over 50 15-game winners.

So we're going to have to narrow things down a little here to make sure we're focusing strictly on teams that were really "hot" in the first month of the season. For while 17 wins is good, it's less good if it's coupled with, say, 10-12 losses. Same goes for 16- and 15-game winners.

The rule of thumb I picked out for the 15-17-win crowd was this one: at least 10 games over .500. And here they are.

Year Team Previous March/April May Final Playoffs
1997 Giants 68-94 17-7 14-14 90-72 Lost NLDS
1997 Rockies 83-79 17-7 12-17 83-79 None
1998 Yankees 96-66 17-6 20-7 114-48 Won WS
2010 Rays 84-78 17-6 17-12 96-66 Lost ALDS
2006 White Sox 99-63 17-7 16-12 90-72 None
2005 White Sox 83-79 17-7 18-10 99-63 Won WS
2003 Royals 62-100 17-7 10-19 83-79 None
2012 Rangers 96-66 17-6 14-14 93-69 Lost WC
1974 Dodgers 95-66 17-6 19-8 102-60 Lost WS
1993 Phillies 70-92 17-5 17-10 97-65 Lost WS
1989 Rangers 70-91 17-5 10-17 83-79 None
1977 Dodgers 92-70 17-3 16-12 98-64 Lost WS
1994 Red Sox 80-82 17-7 13-12 54-61 Strike
1978 A's 63-98 16-5 11-15 69-93 None
1988 Indians 61-101 16-6 15-13 78-84 None
1982 Braves 50-56 16-5 11-15 89-73 Lost NLCS
1970 Reds 89-73 16-6 20-8 102-60 Lost WS
1999 Indians 89-73 16-6 17-10 97-65 Lost ALDS
1988 Pirates 80-82 16-6 14-14 85-75 None
1967 Reds 76-84 15-5 15-13 87-75 None
1962 Giants 85-69 15-5 20-10 103-62 Lost WS
1992 Pirates 98-64 15-5 11-17 96-66 Lost NLCS

Here we have 22 teams. Nine of them regressed significantly in May, and 13 went on to make the postseason. Of the clubs that didn't make the postseason, only three finished with sub-.500 records and one of those teams (1994 Red Sox) did it in a strike-shortened season.

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Holy moly were the 1998 Yankees a good team.

There are also seven teams that made it as far as the World Series in this group, including two teams that won it. Not a bad percentage for a 22-team sample size.

The other thing you'll notice is that 10 of the 13 clubs that turned hot starts into postseason berths had finished over .500 the season before. The narrative is holding: teams with track records of success can be counted on to finish what they start in a hot first month.

Among the teams that didn't turn their hot starts into postseason berths, six of the eight (excepting the 1994 Red Sox due to the strike) had sub-.500 records the year before. Of those six, four immediately regressed in the month of May after jetting out to a hot start in April: the 2003 Royals, 1989 Rangers, 1978 A's and 1988 Pirates.

So, once again, the general narrative is holding. You can count on good teams to make something of hot starts. But the not-so-good teams? Not so much.

As for the two exceptions among the eight hot starters here that missed out on the playoffs—the 1997 Rockies and the 2006 White Sox—they fit pretty well under the other narratives we've discussed. 

The Rockies may have gone a solid 83-79 in 1996, but their Pythagorean record had them down as an 81-81 team. In 1997, their Pythagorean record improved only slightly to 82-80. Sort of like the 2007/2008 Diamondbacks, the 1996/1997 Rockies were mediocre to begin with and they remained mediocre.

The 2006 White Sox, meanwhile, went on to have a solid 90-win season in 2006 after their 17-7 start. That would have been good enough to win the AL Central over the Tigers by two games this year. But in 2006, it was only good for a third-place finish in the division because the Tigers won 95 games and the Twins won 96 games.

Luck of the draw, dude. Luck of the draw.

 

The Wrap-Up

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

There's plenty more data available to sift through, but we've looked at a fairly definitive collection of the hottest of baseball's hottest ever March/April starts. So let's go to the final numbers.

In all, we took a look at 45 teams that got off to hot starts in March and/or April. Of the 45, 29 ended up making the postseason. That's better than 60 percent of them.

Ideally, the rate would be 100 percent. But as any gambler will vouch, any odds better than 50/50 are good odds.

Good teams should like the odds even more. Of the 29 clubs that made the playoffs after a hot start in the first month of the season, 23 had posted winning records the season before. That's close to 80 percent of them.

Sitting there feeling skeptical? Very well then, let's see what the last three crops of playoff teams have to say about hot starts.

Here's the eight that made the playoffs in 2010.

Team March/April Final
Phillies 12-10 97-65
Rays 17-6 96-66
Yankees 15-7 95-67
Twins 15-8 96-68
Giants 13-9 92-70
Reds 12-11 91-71
Braves 9-14 91-71
Rangers 11-12 90-72

Of these eight, only a couple started out truly strong in the first month of the season. But six of them started off with better than .500 records, which is strong enough.

As for the eight clubs that made the postseason in 2011...

Team March/April Final
Phillies 18-8 102-60
Yankees 15-9 97-65
Rangers 16-11 96-66
Brewers 13-13 96-66
Tigers 12-15 95-67
Diamondbacks 11-15 94-68
Rays 15-12 91-71
Cardinals 16-11 90-72

Of these eight, five started the season off on a strong note.

And the 2012 playoff teams?

Team March/April Final
Nationals 14-8 98-64
Reds 11-11 97-65
Yankees 13-9 95-67
A's 11-13 94-68
Giants 12-10 94-68
Braves 14-9 94-68
Rangers 17-6 93-69
Orioles 14-9 93-69
Tigers 11-11 88-74
Cardinals 14-8 88-74

Of the 10, seven started the season off on a strong note.

Add 'em all up, and you get 26 clubs and 18 strong starts. Close to 70 percent, which fits nicely in between the two figures calculated above.

Exact numbers aside, the point is pretty clear. A strong start in the first month of the season doesn't guarantee a postseason berth with 100-percent certainty, but it definitely bodes well for a club's chances of making the postseason in the end.

My surprise level right now: Zero.

The first month of the season is hardly a definitive proving ground for MLB clubs, but games in March and April count just as much towards the standings as games in May, June, July, August or September. Any club that starts hot can be largely mediocre the rest of the season and still end up with a record good enough to make the postseason.

Bear that in mind when watching the hot starters over the next few weeks, especially if the ones starting hot came into the season with a track record. Odds are they're going to be playing in October in the end.

 

Note: All data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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