Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Postseason Reality

By The Common Man

What an amazing night last night, as the Red Sox and the Braves completed their historic and horrific collapses, and the Rays and Cardinals blew past them and into the postseason. It was a remarkable achievement by all four clubs, actually, even if that achievement is significantly painful for some. So many congratulations to the Rays and the Cardinals, and the good baseball-loving people of the Tampa Bay area and St. Louis. And many condolences to the downtrodden in Boston and Atlanta. But baseball waits for no man (not even The Common Man), and so the conquering heroes will be whisked to Texas and Philadelphia respectively to meet their fates.

Both the Rays and the Cards finished their seasons on terrific hot streaks. The Cardinals won 21 of their final 29 games, and ended September with a record of 18-8. In their last ten games, they went 7-3. The Rays finished September 17-10 and ended on a five game winning streak. Naturally, we’d expect their hot play to continue into the postseason. Of course, they’re not running up against paper dolls. Philadelphia won just four of their final 10 games while they rested, but the Rangers have been incredibly hot too, winning 9 of their last 10. But as we learned last year, history suggests that hot and cold streaks going into the playoffs are not meaningful. Not even a little.  Consider the hottest and coldest teams entering the postseason since the beginning of the Wild Card Era in 1995:

Since the Wild Card era began in 1995, 128 teams have made the postseason. Of those teams, 20 clubs finished the season with at least eight wins in their final ten games (or 9 in their last 11, if they played a one-game playoff). Of those 20 clubs, just 11 wound up winning their first playoff series. And of those 11, just four were able to advance to the World Series. The group boasts two World Series winners, the White Sox in 2005 and the Yankees in 1998.
It also doesn’t really matter if a club finishes poorly. Of the 128 playoff teams of the Wild Card Era, 26 won fewer than half of their final 10 games (or fewer than half of their final 11, if the team was involved in a one-game playoff). Of those 26 teams, thirteen won their division series matchups. And of those thirteen, eight advanced to the World Series and five won the whole thing.

It also doesn't matter if a team is on a winning or losing streak:

Thirteen clubs have come into the postseason on a winning streak of five games or more (as the Rangers and Rays are both doing this year).  Seven of those thirteen clubs advanced to the next round.  On the other end of the spectrum, five teams made the postseason even after losing at least their last four games of the year (as the Yankees are doing this year).  Three of those teams won their first round matchup (actually, all three went to the World Series, and two of them won). 

You’ll notice that, at each extreme, roughly half of the clubs who come in to the postseason particularly hot or cold advance. Given that the outcomes of the playoffs are magnified by luck, it’s not surprising to see this as somewhat of a coin flip. It doesn’t matter how hot you were. It doesn’t matter how cold you were. Making the postseason is somewhat like pressing the reset button, as teams start fresh and get a decent shot at knocking each other out. The regular season is over, and it’s time to put away childish things.

Playoffs, baby.

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