September 19, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
Backing into the Playoffs
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a playoff race after all. On Sunday in Boston, the Rays pounced on the Red Sox for six runs in the first five innings, taking advantage of Jarrod Saltalamacchia's inability to stop Tim Wakefield's knuckleball—the backstop was charged with four passed balls, and was party to a wild pitch as well—and won their third game in a pivotal four-game series. The win pulled Tampa Bay to two games behind Boston in the AL wild-card race with 10 games left to play. The odds are still heavily in the Sox’ favor because they play the Orioles seven times while the Rays play the Yankees seven times, but given that less than two weeks ago it appeared the playoff slate was all but sealed, even this much drama is a pleasant surprise—at least if you're not a New Englander.
The Sox are now 4-13 this month, and unless they win all of their remaining games, they'll finish under .500 for September. Unsurprisingly, that's not a sound recipe for reaching the postseason; since the wild card came into existence, just six of the 32 winners have posted sub-.500 records from September 1 onward, while only 11 out of 96 division winners have done so. In all, that's 13.3 percent of the era's post-season teams, roughly one per year. What follows is a rundown of the 10 worst finishes of wild card-era teams that survived their late-season swoons.
10. 1997 Marlins, 12-15 (.444) from September 1 onward, won NL wild card
The Marlins entered September with an 80-55 record, four-and-a-half games behind the Braves, but with the league's second-best record, and a six-game lead over the Giants in the wild-card race. Furthermore, the Fish were in the midst of a six-game winning streak that went through September 3. Despite losing five out of their next six, they were still sitting pretty for a good while longer; through September 19, they were 90-63, six-and-a-half games up on the Dodgers—seven in the loss column—with nine left to play. They proceeded to lose three in a row, but the Dodgers lost two themselves, and when the Marlins notched a win over the Expos on September 23, they clinched their post-season berth; it mattered not that they closed the season at 1-4. They swept the Giants in the Division Series, bumped off the Braves in the Championship Series—with a little help from Eric Gregg—and won a thrilling seven-game World Series over the Indians after scoring the tying run in the ninth inning and the winning run in the 11th.
9. 1998 Red Sox, 12-15 (.444), won AL wild card
Although they were 18 games behind the Yankees' juggernaut at the close of August, the 80-55 Red Sox had the AL's second-best record, and an eight-game lead over Texas in the wild-card standings. They bumbled to a 3-10 record to start September, which cut their wild-card lead to three games with 14 to go, but recovered to go 9-5 the rest of the way, including a 6-2 run that secured their spot in the postseason. Their moment in the sun didn't last long; they were ousted by the Indians in four games.
8. 2008 White Sox, 12-15 (.444), won AL Central
The White Sox and Twins spent the entire second half of the 2008 season in close proximity; after July 26, the Sox were never more than two-and-a-half games ahead of Minnesota, or more than a game back. At 77-59, they held just a half-game lead as September dawned, and despite a 9-10 record over the next three weeks, they were back to a two-and-a-half game cushion with seven games to go. They proceeded to drop three straight in Minnesota to fall into second place, and the losing streak ran to five games before they won their final two to force a Game 163 play-in. Jim Thome's seventh-inning solo homer and John Danks' eight innings of two-hit shutout ball carried the Sox through to the postseason, but the Sox were down 2-0 to the Rays in the Division Series by the time he got the ball again—Javier Vazquez and Mark Buehrle started Games One and Two— and were dispatched in four games.
7. 1996 Braves, 12-15 (.444), won NL East
At 84-51, the defending world champions held the NL's best record and an 11 ½-game division lead through the end of August, but a 2-11 start to the month trimmed their margin over the Expos to four-and-a-half games as of September 14. They quickly righted the ship, winning eight of their next nine; John Smoltz hit a three-run homer and struck out 10 in the clincher on September 22. Their 3-4 mark to the end of the season was of no consequence; they finished with the league's best record, swept the Dodgers in the Division Series, and beat the Cardinals in a seven-game NLCS before finally falling to the Yankees in the World Series.
6. 2010 Yankees, 13-17 (.433), won AL wild card
The Yankees opened September with an 82-50 record and a narrow one-game lead over the Rays for both the division and the league's best record, and they expanded that margin to two-and-a-half games while pushing their winning streak to eight games on September 5. They went just 9-17 the rest of the way, though, as their starting pitching collapsed; Andy Pettitte, A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez, Ivan Nova, and Dustin Moseley—everyone except CC Sabathia, in other words—were rocked for a 6.22 ERA while yielding 1.4 homers per nine and managing just six quality starts out of 21. They nonetheless clinched a playoff berth in their fifth-to-last game, and were tied with the Rays going into the final day of the season before a loss in Boston cost them the division. It didn't matter tremendously; the Yankees swept the Twins in the Division Series before being eliminated by the Rangers, who had done in the Rays one round earlier.
5. 2006 Tigers, 12-16 (.429), won AL wild card
The Tigers spent most of the season in first place; on August 7, they were 76-36 with a season-high 10-game lead. They went just 7-15 the rest of that month, but were still an AL-best 83-51 with a four-and-a-half game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central as September opened. The Sox couldn't keep pace, but a 12-11 stretch by the Tigers coupled with a 17-8 stretch by the Twins narrowed Detroit's lead to one game with five left to play, all of them at home versus the Blue Jays and Royals. They lost the first four, but were still tied with Minnesota going into the final day of the season; while the Twins beat the White Sox, a tenacious Kansas City team overcame a 6-0 lead to beat the Tigers 10-8 in 12 innings, bumping them down to the wild card. Jim Leyland's club quickly pulled themselves together, as the Tigers won seven out of eight to dispatch both the Yankees and A's en route to the World Series, but they ran out of gas and lost to St. Louis in five games.
4. 2000 Yankees, 13-18 (.419), won AL East
The two-time defending world champions entered September with a 74-56 record, five games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East, but three-and-a-half games behind the White Sox for the league's best record. They went 10-3 over the next two weeks to expand their lead to nine games with 18 left to play, but then the Yankees suddenly turned into the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. They went 3-15 the rest of the way while surrendering more than 10 runs seven times; they were outscored 148-59, for a .157 Pythagorean winning percentage, and the staff's ERA over that stretch was 8.04. That team's 87 wins still rank as the franchise's lowest total over a 162-game season since 1992, but they were able to flip the switch in the postseason, outlasting the A's in a five-game Division Series, beating the Mariners in a six-game ALCS before defeating the crosstown Mets in a five-game World Series.
3. 2006 Cardinals, 12-17 (.413), won NL Central
Tony La Russa's club appeared to have matters well in hand as the Cardinals entered September with a 71-61 record and a five-game NL Central lead; no other team in the division was above .500. Even in winning just nine of their next 17, they furthered their lead to seven games; their magic number to clinch was just five with 12 games left to play. What followed was mayhem, as the Cardinals dropped its next seven games—four of them to Houston, who moved into second place in the division via a nine-game winning streak—and eight out of nine. That shrank their lead to half a game over the Astros with three to play, plus a potential makeup of their September 17 rainout against the Giants. The Cards gained a game back on the final Friday of the regular season with a 10-5 win over the Brewers, and with the two teams matching wins and losses on Saturday and Sunday, the replay wasn't necessary, as they won the division by a game and a half. Despite their meager 83-78 record, they went on to beat the Padres in the Division Series, the Mets in the NLCS, and the Tigers in the World Series, making them the least-accomplished champions ever in terms of wins in a 162-game schedule—but still champions.
2. 2008 Brewers, 10-16 (.385), won NL wild card
The Brewers entered September at 80-56, four-and-a-half games behind the Cubs in the NL Central but four-and-a-half ahead of the Phillies in the wild-card race; the team's first trip to the postseason since 1982 seemed all but assured. Alas, the Brewers dropped 11 of their first 14 games to start September, capped by a four-game sweep by the Phillies, which not only pulled the teams even in the wild-card race at 83-67, but also cost Brewers manager Ned Yost his job; with 12 games remaining, he was axed due to bullpen malpractice and replaced by bench coach Dale Sveum. That didn't stop the bleeding; the reeling Brewers lost four of their next five to fall two-and-a-half behind the Mets (who had been passed by the Phillies) in the wild-card race; they were now 4-15 in September. Fortunately, Milwaukee closed things out by winning six of their final seven games, two of them in starts by midseason acquisition CC Sabathia on three days' rest, the second one on the final day of the season. Their disheveled rotation made them no match for the Phillies in the postseason, however; they were one-and-done.
1. 1998 Padres, 9-15 (.375), won NL West
The Padres entered September a whopping 40 games above .500 at 89-49, one game behind the Braves for the NL's top record, and 15 games ahead of the second-place Giants in the NL West. While the offense's production plummeted from 4.85 runs per game through August 31 to 3.33 per game thereafter, that lead was too big to fail. The Padres clinched the division on September 12, overcoming a 7-0 lead by the Dodgers to do so. They went just 4-9 the rest of the way, but still finished with a nine-game lead as well as a franchise-best 98-64 record. They beat the Astros in the Division Series and the Braves in the NLCS to secure just the second pennant in franchise history, but were swept by the 114-win Yankees juggernaut in the World Series.
As you can see, a poor final month isn't quite the death sentence it appears to be, but then you already knew that late-season records don't tell us anything about post-season success. The 10 teams above won a combined 16 post-season series, with six of them reaching the World Series, and three of them winning it all. Many of those teams' slow finishes were products of coasting home, with the 2008 Brewers and White Sox the only two teams whose white-knuckle finishes created rotation issues that hobbled their first-round chances.
That record of success should be of some consolation to the reeling Red Sox, though on the other hand, the injuries to Kevin Youkilis, J.D. Drew, Clay Buchholz, and Josh Beckett give this year's model more key question marks than most of the above teams had, and of course, the Sox can still wind up on a more ignominious list if they continue to falter. Sleep tight, New England.
Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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