Early season records: predictors of making the postseason?

Paul Goldschmidt can probably book tee times beginning September 29th - USA TODAY Sports

When teams get off to a hot or cold start, is it predictive to see if they will make the playoffs?

As the 2014 season began, the Arizona Diamondbacks were a huge question mark--were they a team on the rise with solid young pitchers like Patrick Corbin and Trevor Cahill, supplemented with one of the best young hitters in baseball in Paul Goldschmidt? Or were they just another NL West team without enough talent throughout the lineup to challenge the Dodgers? Corbin was injured during spring training and underwent Tommy John surgery, Cahill is off to an 0-4 start and while Goldschmidt is hitting for average, he has fewer home runs than Mark Trumbo. This has helped contribute to a 4-12 record through Monday.

Contrast them with the Milwaukee Brewers, off to a 10-3 start (also through Monday), their best start since 1987 when they began the season 13-0. Carlos Gomez is playing as well as he did in 2013 and Aramis Ramirez has recovered nicely from injury, not a given for a 36-year-old player. Two of their three losses were tagged on Matt Garza, during which the Brewers scored exactly zero runs (isn't the win a useless statistic? Someone should look into it!). In a very competitive NL Central, the Brewers hot start has them poised to remain competitive with the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates. They also have all 18 games against the Cubs remaining, which is probably one reason why the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds lists them with a 51.9% chance of making the playoffs.

Do teams that start hot increase their chances of making the playoffs? Do teams that start slow effectively throw their postseason chances away? There's a little-known feature of the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index under the Game Result Search Tool called Streaks, and these questions can be investigated.

Beginning with the Brewers, this table shows how teams starting 10-3 have finished--since 1903, 101 teams (not including the Brewers) began the year 10-3, of which 53 made the playoffs, just over half. Since 2000, these are the teams beginning 10-3 and how they fared:

Team Year Final Record Playoffs
Washington 2012 98-64 Division Champ
LA Dodgers 2012 86-76
Texas 2011 96-66 AL Pennant
NY Yankees 2010 95-67 Wildcard
Tampa Bay 2010 96-66 Division Champ
LA Dodgers 2009 95-67 Division Champ
NY Mets 2006 97-65 Division Champ
Seattle 2002 93-69
Seattle 2001 116-46 Division Champ
Minnesota 2001 85-77
NY Yankees 2000 87-74 WS Champ

Clearly an expanded number of playoff slots was a factor when 8 of these 11 teams made the playoffs. This chart breaks it down by number of playoff slots:

Year Teams Playoffs Percent
1995-2013 (4-5 Teams per League) 18 12 66.7%
1969-1993 (2 Teams) 25 13 52.0%
1903-1968 (1 Team) 58 28 48.3%

As the number of playoff slots increased, the number of teams with good starts that made the playoffs rose right along with it, perfectly understandable. If baseball ever adds a sixth playoff spot (they will, I'm against it) the percentage of teams with good starts who make the postseason will rise even higher.

How about the Diamondbacks--should they just pack it in, wait for Corbin to heal and trade off all their assets and reset themselves for a run in 2015? Maybe--since 1903, 72 teams started the year 4-12, of which only two made the playoffs, the 1951 Giants (that team rings a bell for some reason) and the 1981 Astros in a year in which a divisional format was used after the season was split in two due to a strike, and their second half record was the reason they made it.

Are early season records an accurate predictor of making the playoffs, or is it more a factor of good teams being good and bad teams being bad? Referring back to the chart of 10-3 teams since 2000--most of those teams were good. In other words, they didn't necessarily make the playoffs because they got off to a hot start, but because they were good teams whose good starts were a reflection of their excellence. Contrast this with the recent 4-12 teams:

Team Year Final Record Playoffs
San Diego 2012 76-86
Chicago Cubs 2012 61-101
Washington 2008 59-102
Montreal 2004 67-95
Toronto 2004 67-94
Milwaukee 2002 56-106
Tampa Bay 2001 62-100
Kansas City 2001 65-97
Detroit 2000 79-83

If the preseason predictions for these teams were reviewed, it's doubtful many predicted success for these teams. This suggests teams don't necessarily get off to bad starts as much as there are bad teams, and sometimes the beginning of their seasons aren't good. As much as the 35-5 start for the Detroit Tigers in 1984 was a huge factor in them making the playoffs and eventually beating the Padres for the World Series, they were good, probably even outstanding. Chances are they were good enough to make the playoffs without that record-setting start.

A writer for whom I have tremendous respect didn't have many good things to say about the Brewers in a preseason preview, and my daughter has been texting me about how good the Brewers have been playing so far. I'm still unsure about the Brewers--they could be good enough to make the playoffs, but they're in a difficult division and need many things to go right. I don't advocate they begin printing postseason tickets just yet, but history, particularly recent history, is on their side. It's a very real possibility that the Brewers aren't off to a hot start as much as they are a good team playing very good in the short term. They won't maintain a 10-3 pace, but that pace could be the marker of a team good enough to make the playoffs.

About the Diamondbacks, though . . .

All data from Baseball-Reference.com

Scott lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

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