The Playoffs and Streaks, Part 1

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Do teams with late season winning streaks have a better shot in the postseason.

There is a saying in Major League Baseball that, in the playoffs, anything can happen. A full season's worth of 162 games (or 163) is cast out of the window, and eight (ten if the wild card losers count) teams equally vie for the World Series trophy. Nothing prior to the playoffs matters. The team that plays the best, fights the hardest, and is the luckiest wins the World Series.

Fans of every team in the playoffs hope that their team is the one that will catch on fire and win the trophy. Plenty of analysts have suggested that a team riding into the playoffs playing good baseball and on a winning streak is the favorite. But is that true? Is a team's success during the games before the playoffs related to success in the playoffs? Will a team that is winning at the end of the season continue to win once the playoffs start?

In order to test this interesting theory, I examined the late-season records of all playoffs teams from 2007-2012 using three arbitrary ranges. I then looked for any possible correlation between late season success and victories in the playoffs. The three sets of games were the last ten games of the season, the last fifteen games of the season, and the last month of games during the season.*

Below are the results of my research. In order to simplify the data, numeral "1" stands for winning the World Series, numeral "2" stands for winning the Championships Series (and losing in the World Series), numeral "3" stands for winning the Divisional Series (and losing in the Championship Series), numeral "4" stands for losing the Divisional Series, and numeral "5" stands for losing the Wild Card game (only applicable for the 2012 season).

Last 10 Games

Team Year Win% Result
Rangers 2011 90% 2
Rockies 2007 90% 2
Tigers 2012 80% 2
Athletics 2012 80% 4
Yankees 2012 70% 3
Braves 2012 70% 5
Cardinals 2012 70% 3
Tigers 2011 70% 3
Brewers 2011 70% 3
Cardinals 2011 70% 1
Diamondbacks 2011 70% 4
Giants 2010 70% 1
Yankees 2009 70% 1
Twins 2009 70% 4
Angels 2009 70% 3
Angels 2008 70% 4
Phillies 2008 70% 1
Phillies 2007 70% 4
Orioles 2012 60% 4
Nationals 2012 60% 4
Rays 2011 60% 4
Rangers 2010 60% 2
Phillies 2010 60% 3
Rockies 2009 60% 4
Rays 2008 60% 2
Red Sox 2008 60% 3
Brewers 2008 60% 4
Red Sox 2007 60% 1
Yankees 2007 60% 4
Indians 2007 60% 3
Cubs 2007 60% 4
Reds 2012 50% 4
Giants 2012 50% 1
Yankees 2011 50% 4
Rays 2010 50% 4
Braves 2010 50% 4
Reds 2010 50% 4
Cubs 2008 50% 4
Dodgers 2008 50% 3
Diamondbacks 2007 50% 3
Phillies 2011 40% 4
Red Sox 2009 40% 4
Phillies 2009 40% 2
Dodgers 2009 40% 3
White Sox 2008 40% 4
Angels 2007 40% 4
Rangers 2012 30% 5
Yankees 2010 30% 3
Twins 2010 20% 4
Cardinals 2009 20% 4

A few notes of interest....

  • The average (arithmetic mean) result number for teams that were over .500 is 2.97. For the other teams, it is 3.58. This certainly is solid evidence that while being over .500 is no guarantee of success, it is a better sign for a playoff bound team.
  • The two teams that won nine of their last ten games both made the World Series. One of two teams to win the eight of their games made the World Series. It isn't definitive, but it seems that finishing the season very strongly during the final ten games is a solid indicator of going deep into the playoffs. Also, five of the six World Series winners won 70% of the games, while the sixth won 50%.
  • Only one team with a losing record made it past the Championship Series. While winning a majority of the last ten games does not mean the team will definitely do well in the playoffs, having a losing streak at the end of the season looks to signal doom.

Last 15 Games

Team Year Win% Result
Rockies 2007 93% 2
Rangers 2011 87% 2
Twins 2009 80% 4
Phillies 2008 80% 1
Yankees 2012 73% 3
Cardinals 2012 73% 3
Brewers 2011 73% 3
Cardinals 2011 73% 1
Phillies 2007 73% 4
Phillies 2010 73% 3
Tigers 2012 67% 2
Athletics 2012 67% 4
Braves 2012 67% 5
Tigers 2011 67% 3
Angels 2008 67% 4
Orioles 2012 67% 4
Yankees 2007 67% 4
Indians 2007 67% 3
Giants 2012 67% 1
Diamondbacks 2011 60% 4
Giants 2010 60% 1
Yankees 2009 60% 1
Angels 2009 60% 3
Rays 2011 60% 4
Rockies 2009 60% 4
Rays 2008 60% 2
Red Sox 2008 60% 3
Cubs 2007 60% 6
Reds 2012 60% 6
Nationals 2012 53% 6
Braves 2010 53% 6
Reds 2010 53% 6
Cubs 2008 53% 6
Dodgers 2008 53% 3
Angels 2007 53% 4
Rangers 2010 47% 2
Brewers 2008 47% 4
Red Sox 2007 47% 1
Yankees 2011 47% 4
Rays 2010 47% 4
Diamondbacks 2007 47% 3
Red Sox 2009 47% 4
Phillies 2009 47% 2
Dodgers 2009 47% 3
White Sox 2008 47% 4
Phillies 2011 40% 4
Rangers 2012 40% 5
Yankees 2010 40% 3
Twins 2010 40% 4
Cardinals 2009 40% 4

  • Interestingly enough, when the range is expanded by five, the correlation practically disappears. Teams with a record over .500 averaged a 3.11 result while teams below .500 averaged a 3.4 result.

Last Month of Games

Team Year Win% Result
Tigers 2011 77% 3
Phillies 2010 77% 3
Rockies 2011 76% 2
Rangers 2007 72% 2
Yankees 2007 70% 4
Cardinals 2011 69% 1
Phillies 2008 68% 1
Dodgers 2008 68% 3
Indians 2007 68% 3
Braves 2012 67% 5
Giants 2012 67% 1
Twins 2009 66% 4
Giants 2010 66% 1
Angels 2008 65% 4
Yankees 2012 65% 3
Athletics 2012 65% 4
Orioles 2012 65% 4
Yankees 2009 65% 1
Rockies 2009 65% 4
Diamondbacks 2011 64% 4
Rays 2011 63% 4
Red Sox 2008 62% 3
Phillies 2007 61% 4
Brewers 2011 60% 3
Twins 2010 60% 4
Angels 2009 59% 3
Red Sox 2009 59% 4
Red Sox 2007 59% 1
Cubs 2007 59% 4
Nationals 2012 58% 4
Diamondbacks 2007 58% 3
Yankees 2011 57% 4
Cardinals 2012 57% 3
Dodgers 2009 57% 3
Reds 2012 53% 4
Rangers 2010 53% 2
Phillies 2011 53% 4
Phillies 2009 53% 2
Tigers 2012 51% 2
Cubs 2008 50% 4
Angels 2007 50% 4
Rays 2010 50% 4
Rangers 2012 48% 5
Rays 2008 48% 2
Braves 2010 47% 4
Reds 2010 47% 4
Cardinals 2009 47% 4
White Sox 2008 44% 4
Yankees 2010 43% 3
Brewers 2008 38% 4

  • Since most teams won at least half of the games in the final month of the season, it is useless to continue the previous comparison between above and below .500 teams. Instead, I divided the teams into the top 25 and the bottom 25 based on their record during the month. The top 25 had an average result of 3 while the bottom half had an average of 3.4. As was the case with the 15 game sample size, the difference is relatively insignificant. All the World Series winners won at least 65% of their games in the final month, though four teams that made the World Series failed to win at least 55% of their games.

Conclusions

While the sample size is probably too small to conclude anything definitely, it does appear that there is some correlation between how a team performs in their last ten games and how well the do in the postseason. I'll look further into the correlation by broadening the sample size (I'm planning on using data from 20 seasons) and see if the correlation continues to exist. In the second part, I will also examine whether streakiness during the regular season has any impact of a team's title hopes.

With the addition of the second wild card, the principle that winning during the final ten games shows an improved change of going deep into the playoffs is far less relevant for the Wild Card teams. Since they play in a do-or-die game, their odds of winning the World Series are cut in half. So while this finding is interesting for teams that win their division, it isn't a useful predictor of success for the Wild Cards.

*October was included with September in the few years that regular season games were played during October.

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