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How Many Teams Have Come Back from Horrible April Starts to Make the Playoffs?

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How Many Teams Have Come Back from Horrible April Starts to Make the Playoffs?
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Hint: the 2001 Oakland A's.

If you're a fan of the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs, Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels, Houston Astros or Miami Marlins, I have bad news for you.

Your team is very likely screwed.

These six clubs had horrible Aprils, as each one of them finished the month with a winning percentage under .400. For teams looking to make the postseason—which, granted, is a discussion that doesn't include the Padres, Cubs, Astros and Marlins—an April showing like that is danger territory.

How do I know? Just taking a wild guess, really.

...Just kidding. I know this because I actually went and looked. 

I didn't extend my gaze to encompass all of baseball history. Just the Wild Card Era, in which there are six divisions rather than four and (at least) twice as many playoff spots up for grabs than there used to be. Things aren't going back to the way they were when only two teams played for the pennant, making everything that happened before the Wild Card Era pretty much irrelevant.

The Wild Card Era technically began in 1994, but I ignored 1994 and 1995 in my research: 1994 because there was no postseason thanks to the strike, and 1995 because the season didn't begin until late April thanks to the strike (curse you, strike!).

With an assist from Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, I found 92 teams from 1996 to 2012 that went into the month of May with a sub-.400 winning percentage. To give you an idea, the best record posted by any of these teams was 11-17.

Of these 92 teams, want to know how many went on to make the playoffs?

Try six. Six out of 92 makes for about seven percent, which my elementary knowledge of math tells me is not good.

The six clubs that did survive to make the postseason were:

Year Team April Record Final Record Postseason Ticket
 2001 Oakland A's   8-17  102-60  AL Wild Card
 2006 Minnesota Twins   9-15  96-66  AL Central Champs
 2006 San Diego Padres   9-15  88-74  NL West Champs
 2007 New York Yankees   9-14  94-68   AL Wild Card
 2007 Colorado Rockies  10-16  90-73  NL Wild Card
 2010 Atlanta Braves   9-14  91-71  NL Wild Card

The following must be said: HOLY 2001 OAKLAND A'S.

After going 8-17 in April, the 2001 A's went 94-43 the rest of the way. That's a .686 winning percentage, which translates to a 111-win season over a full 162-game slate. 

Not that that would have been good enough to win the AL West in 2001, mind you. The Seattle Mariners won 116 games that year.

If there's a bright side beyond the 2001 A's, it's that slow April starters have had better success lately. There was basically no hope for slow starters between 1996 and 2005, but things have been different since 2006. 

The not-so-bright side is that there are two teams in the above table that probably shouldn't be there.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
And let's not forget Matt Holliday's controversial slide.

The 2006 San Diego Padres won a mediocre NL West division, and the 2007 Colorado Rockies needed a late-season surge unlike any we'd ever seen to make the playoffs. Take these two clubs out of the equation, and we're talking about only four teams that rebounded from slow starts to make the postseason.

Regardless of the exact number, the odds are perilously slim. What's even more discouraging is that it's highly uncommon for slow April starters in the Wild Card Era to even come close to making the playoffs in the end.

Of the 86 clubs that didn't make the postseason, only four finished within five games of a playoff spot at the end of the season: the 1996 Boston Red Sox, 1998 Toronto Blue Jays, 2005 Cleveland Indians and 2012 Los Angeles Angels.

The '96 Red Sox finished three games out in the AL wild-card chase. The '98 Blue Jays finished four games out, and the '05 Indians finished a mere two games out. Last year's Angels finished five games out in the AL West and four games off the pace in the wild card.

These four clubs were in it to the bitter end, but their slow starts to the season cost them. Not even the 2005 Indians, who rebounded to play .600 baseball from May on after a 9-14 start, were able to brush aside their slow April start. Ditto the 2012 Angels, who played .583 baseball from May on.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Another lesson learned from the 2012 Angels: When you have a Mike Trout, you call him up ASAP.

The 2012 Angels represent something of a canary in the coalmine, as they were looking to track down one of two wild-card spots after their slow start last season. Going forward, we could see more slow starters make the postseason thanks to the expanded playoffs.

But I wouldn't count on it. The reason so many slow starters in the Wild Card Era have failed to make the postseason is because so many of them never really recovered.

Of the 92 teams I looked at, only 29 recovered to play better than .500 ball in the month of May. That's only about 32 percent of them. More elementary math analysis: Not good.

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Worse, only 15 of the 92 teams went on to finish with records over .500. That includes the six teams that made the playoffs, leaving nine non-playoff teams that finished with respectable records. That's roughly 11 percent of the non-playoff teams. Again, not good.

You hear the words "it's early" often during the month of April. Nobody wants to overreact to anything, whether the topic is a hot-starting player, a slow-starting player, a hot-starting team or a slow-starting team. For the most part, April is hardly the best proving ground the baseball season has to offer.

But in this case, the numbers speak for themselves. There's clearly something to the notion that a postseason spot can't be won in April, but that one can certainly be lost.

 

Note: Special thanks, as always, to Baseball-Reference.com for the numbers.

 

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

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