The Value of Being Hot

Jeff Suppan and the St. Louis Cardinals had a miserable September, but won the World Series anyway. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

Much to my chagrin, this is not a post about Mark Walhberg. Instead, I've been wondering for the past few weeks about the playoffs. The Rays seem to already have a grasp of at least some post-season slot. We are now only waiting to see which town gets to print the first set of tickets, New York City or St. Petersburg. But, with each passing day, I become more worried. Specifically, I worry the Rays need to play much better --- not for the need of a playoff spot, but for the need of being hot going in to the playoffs.

Perhaps my innate desire for this sources from last year's events, when the Yankees seemed unstoppable in the final two months of baseball, or from watching football, where lately the only important playoff element is the size of a teams' injury list.

So, I have been scouring teh onlinez to see what kind of research is already available in this area. From what I can tell, most analysts discount momentum. Instead, they focus on roster construction: Tom Tango et al. (the non "Secret Saucers") think the best overall team has the best chance, whereas Nate Silver et al. (the "Secret Saucers") think it takes a Secret Sauce of (a) high strikeout pitchers, (b) stud closers, and (c) great defense.

But these limited findings did not sate my concerns. So I began searching websites and sacred tomes for some sort of statistics on the matter. To my dismay, I could not find an easy means of culling comprehensive data on the matter, so I'm doing the next best/easiest thing: looking at the last five World Series winners. What did they look like in September?

Well let's find out...

The last five world champs are as follows:

Why did I pick the champs? Well, first of all, it was easiest. Secondly, and more importantly, the object of this research is to see if playing bad in September negatively affects how we play in October (that is, the playoffs). Future research could probably benefit, however, from examining each team that reached the playoffs.

Here's how these teams did:

Team Sept W-L% Post W-L%
2009 NYY 0.679 0.733
2008 PHI 0.680 0.786
2007 BOS 0.593 0.786
2006 STL 0.429 0.688
2005 CHW 0.586 0.917

(source: Baseball-Reference.com)

I must admit the results of these teams shocked me when I first saw them. The White Sox -- who lost only one game in the entire playoffs (.917) -- had the second worst winning percentage in September (.586). Meanwhile the Yankees -- who seemed unstoppable in September -- played well in October, but not as well as Boston or Chicago, who played markedly worse in September. Also, St. Louis had a losing percentage (they were below .500!) in September.

Here's a graphical representation of that data, plus their full regular season W-L%.

In the current playoff system, a team must win 11 games to win the World Series -- without losing more than 8. Therefore, the lowest possible W-L% to win the World Series is .579. Of course, the sequencing of those wins and losses matter a lot -- a team cannot start by losing 8 really quickly and then snapping off 11 straight; they'd be home with a beer in hand after the first 3. This is important to note that none of these teams just scraped by in the playoffs -- most of them did much better than necessary, except for the Cardinal who may have been the worst team to win the World Series in the last decade.

Altogether, these championship teams did not fair as well in September as they did in October:

Combined Sept W-L% 0.591
Combined Post W-L% 0.764

(source: Baseball-Reference.com)

However, their overall, combined record was .585, so they still played -- on average -- well in September. Were they hot? Some were. Were they cold? Some were.

Interestingly, their season halves were almost almost identical:

Combined First Half 0.588
Combined Second Half 0.581

(source: Baseball-Reference.com)

If anything, these championship teams were slightly colder in the second half than the first half.

So what does this mean for the Rays? So far in September, we've teetered along the edge of .500, but with a higher Pythagorean W-L than .500. That means we've played better than our record indicates. But would it really matter? We see here that two teams (NYY and PHI) both played better in September than their season record, two played worse (STL and CHW), and one played right on (BOS).

This data leads me to suspect that, instead of stressing about how Carlos Pena is swinging or how Jeff Niemann is pitching, I should simply sit back and enjoy the ride. At this point -- assuming we don't asplode and miss the playoffs -- there's little more that can affect our fate than fate itself.

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