It's a question that gets asked all the time in sports: Is there such a thing as clinching a postseason berth too early?
That query is particularly popular in Major League Baseball, given the never-let-up mentality that comes with playing a season that is 162 games long.
In other words, if baseball players are used to playing as much as they do for the better part of six months, maybe it can be problematic when they don't absolutely have to down the stretch. They head into the playoffs too rested or more than a little rusty.
This season, there are two clubs who are facing this possibility over the final two or three weeks, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves. Both have been leading their respective divisions by double digits for much of the second half.
Both teams have already have begun giving regular players days off to help keep them fresh for the playoffs, but is that wise?
"The luxury of building a big lead is that you can give guys a break when they need it," says Braves backstop Brian McCann. "But at the same time, everybody wants to play because we're fighting for the best record in baseball and home-field advantage. That's what keeps you going to try to win as many games as possible and head into the postseason with a strong finish."
It might sound silly to wonder if McCann and his Braves teammates or the Dodgers squad should be legitimately concerned about being too far ahead of the competition—but is it?
To find out, we looked at the past 10 seasons (2003-2012) and identified "early clinchers"—teams that clinched a postseason berth with at least 10 games still to play in the regular season. Let's run through these and see if there are any lessons to be learned about rest and rust when it comes to baseball in late September and, more importantly, October.
The Cincinnati Reds took over the NL Central early on in the second half last year thanks to a balanced attack at the plate and on the mound. They didn't shut it down over the final 12 games once they clinched, but their postseason turned into a disaster when they blew a two-games-to-none lead over the eventual champion San Francisco Giants in the first round.
Just like the Reds, the Giants played .500 ball down the stretch a year ago, but unlike Cincinnati, San Francisco was able to go on another incredible playoff run to win their second title in three years. Same post-clinch approach, and yet one team became a tragedy, the other a treasure.
It may be hard to remember now, but the Philadelphia Phillies were a powerhouse in 2011. Even after taking it easy over the final 16 games, Philadelphia won 102 games—the most in baseball. Of course, the favorites entering October were then ousted in a classic first-round battle that was decided in a 1-0 win in Game 5 by the St. Louis Cardinals, who eventually won it all.
The 2011 Detroit Tigers kept plugging away, going 7-4 over their final 11 after locking up a postseason spot, and that may have helped them get past the New York Yankees in yet another tight five-game Division Series. Alas, Detroit couldn't best the Rangers in the next round.
It's impossible to say for sure that the Twins' 4-8 showing over the final two weeks in 2010 was the reason they were swept out of the first round. But it's also impossible to say that it wasn't part of the reason, either.
Those of you who don't buy into the resting approach, here's what you've been waiting for. The Yankees had the best record in baseball for most of the second half in 2009, stayed the course after clinching and then went all the way. So it can happen...
...but that doesn't mean it always does. Like the Yankees in '09, this 2008 Angels squad was a monster that finished with 100 wins and the best record in the majors, in part because they refused to get rusty or rested despite locking up a spot on Sept. 10—the earliest clinch in the past 10 years. And then...they were wiped out in four games in the ALDS by the Red Sox.
The 2006 Yankees went 5-5 over their final 10, but they then struggled against the upstart Tigers, who had fallen from the AL Central lead into the Wild Card position on the season's final day. However, they reached the World Series in their first playoff appearance since 1987.
Don't laugh: The "other" New York club was a juggernaut all year, too. Despite easing up some over their final two weeks, the 2006 Mets finished 97-65, which not only tied the Yanks for the best record, but was also—get this—nine games better than the next-best National League team. That only made the epic NLCS Game 7 loss to the Cardinals, who won the title after going just 83-78, all the more disappointing.
Just because the 2005 Astros entered the NLCS coming off that never-ending 18-inning Game 4 win over the Braves in the first round doesn't mean they weren't ready to dispatch a Cardinals club who had shut it down by mid-September and still won an MLB-high 100 games.
Here in 2004 is a second example of a Twins team taking advantage a so-so AL Central, clinching the crown early, relaxing in late September and then getting dismissed in the Division Series round. Hmmm.
This 2004 Cardinals squad played well enough down the stretch, which might have helped them ride an unbelievably successful season—their 105-57 record is the best in the sport over the past 10 years—into the Fall Classic, where they were promptly swept by the curse-breaking Red Sox team from destiny.
The 2003 Giants kept on keepin' on with a 7-4 mark after locking up the NL West, but it didn't do them any good, as they were upset right out of Round 1 by the Wild Card Marlins that kept on keepin' on themselves—all the way to a World Series win.
Breakdown of Results for Early Clinchers
Now that we've looked at the individual cases from the past 10 years, here's the overall picture:
The takeaway here is that more than half of the teams who locked up their spot early (i.e., at least 10 games left) wound up dropping out in the very first round. That's a pretty harsh return for dominating a division for five-plus months, no?
Obviously, it wasn't all bad, as three teams did make it to the Fall Classic, with two of them winning it all. But it does at least raise the question of whether there's any real benefit to clinching early.
Same goes when considering how these teams finished up their regular seasons. As the chart below reveals, there isn't any definitive by-the-numbers correlation that shows that an early clincher that stays active and invested over the final few weeks is going be able to translate that into playoff success.
The teams that kept the pedal to the metal did have the best outcome on average: Out of the five clubs who won more than they lost down the stretch, three made it past the first round, with two reaching the World Series and one of those winning it all. Of course, two of the five couldn't even crack the first round.
If there is one key conclusion to be drawn from all this, though, it's that any early clinching club would be wise to avoid taking its foot completely off the gas once a playoff berth is in the bag. None of the five teams who played sub-.500 ball after giving the order to start printing postseason tickets even reached the World Series, let alone won it.
The Dodgers and Braves have already taken to sitting some of their players when they can, but if they want to get a title shot, perhaps they should do their best to prevent themselves from getting too rested or too rusted.
Such a thing just might be possible.
Note: All quotes were obtained first-hand.