Posted May 27, 2013

Important milepost offers snapshot of who will make playoffs and who won’t

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Los Angeles Dodgers, Toronto Blue Jays
Matt Kemp, Dodgers

History suggests Matt Kemp and the Dodgers have very little chance of reaching the postseason. (AP)

By the end of Monday, the average major league team will have played 50 games. Given that as well as the fact that Memorial Day marks something of a milepost for the season, it’s worth looking back at the history of the wild-card era to examine the likelihood of slow starters such as the Dodgers, Angels and Blue Jays digging out of their holes to make the postseason, and of more surprising ones such as the Pirates and Red Sox holding on to postseason berths.

Since the advent of the wild-card system in 1995, a total of 146 teams have made the postseason, eight per year up until last year, when an additional pair of wild cards was added to create a one-game playoff game. Ignoring the actual identities of the teams, here’s what the historical distribution of win totals through 50 games looks like, with the number and percentage of teams making the playoffs for each one:

Wins # Teams # Playoff % Playoff
12-17 25 0 0.0%
18 19 1 5.3%
19 22 0 0.0%
20 25 1 4.0%
21 28 3 10.7%
22 30 3 10.0%
23 48 5 10.4%
24 33 3 9.1%
25 48 9 18.8%
26 51 13 25.5%
27 47 19 40.4%
28 40 14 35.0%
29 34 18 52.9%
30 34 20 58.8%
31 19 17 89.5%
32 8 2 25.0%
33 9 6 66.7%
34 5 4 80.0%
35 5 4 80.0%
36-38 4 4 100.0%

The distribution isn’t perfect, but the trends are apparent; you can literally count on one hand the teams with 21 or fewer wins at the 50-game mark who have rallied to make the playoffs: the 2005 Astros (18-32), 2009 Rockies (20-30), 1995 Yankees (21-29), 2003 Marlins (21-29), and 2007 Yankees (21-29). Even up through 25 wins — a .500 record — the chances are quite slim. Fewer than half the teams with 28 wins make the postseason. Aggregating these into meaningful clusters for more clarity:

Wins # Teams # Playoff % Playoff
12-16 15 0 0%
17-20 76 2 3%
21-24 139 14 10%
25-28 186 55 30%
29-32 95 57 60%
33-38 23 18 78%

Beyond the worst of the worst, nothing is set in stone; even a couple of very slow-starting teams recovered, while some who appeared to be running away from the pack were eventually run over. So what does that mean for the current landscape? Obviously, neither the Marlins (13-37) nor the Astros (14-36) are going anywhere, and while they’re not quite to 50 games at this writing, it’s reasonably safe to rule out the Mets (18-29), Cubs (19-30), Brewers (19-29) and Twins (19-28), none of whom extrapolate to having more than 20 wins through the 50 game mark based on their current winning percentages.

CANNELLA: Surprises and disappointments from early going

It’s the next cluster of teams that’s of particular interest, for they include several teams that harbored big hopes coming into the year: the Dodgers (20-28), Blue Jays (21-29), Mariners (21-29), Royals (21-26), Padres (22-27), Angels (23-27) and Phillies (24-26). The Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels have ranked among the game’s biggest disappointments so far, with the job security of managers Don Mattingly and Mike Scioscia under scrutiny for the past few weeks. Mattingly has survived the most recent round of speculation with a vote of confidence from upper management if not improved play, while Scioscia appears secure; the Angels are is currently riding an eight-game winning streak and will get Jered Weaver back this week, so they may yet climb off the mat.

Meanwhile, the modest offseason retooling efforts of the Mariners, Royals and Phillies don’t appear to have gained much traction. While you won’t hear any of the players, managers or general managers from those teams conceding that they’re in “Wait Til Next Year” territory yet, history suggests that those with 21 to 24 wins at the 50-game mark have only a 10 percent shot at rebounding from such inauspicious beginnings. Given the number currently in this category, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if one broke through this year, which means a lot of unhappy campers.

The odds start to improve significantly for the next cluster of teams, the ones that could wind up in the 25-28 win tier at the 50-game mark: the White Sox (24-24), Rays (25-24), Nationals (26-24), Rockies (27-23), Orioles (27-23), A’s (28-23), Indians (27-22), Giants (28-22), Diamondbacks (28-22) and Tigers (28-20). Even so, only around 30 percent of such teams make the playoffs, so we could expect around three from that crop. The Tigers, with two games in hand, might actually belong in the next tier.

Not counting Detroit, that leaves seven teams, of which only the Cardinals (32-17) have a shot at the 33+ win tier of near-certainty. The Red Sox (31-20), Yankees (30-19), Braves (30-19), Pirates (31-19), Reds (31-19) and Rangers (32-18) are sitting relatively pretty, with around a 60 percent shot at the playoffs; we should expect around four from this group to make it. That’s rather good news for the Red Sox, who have rebounded from last year’s 69-win aberration more strongly than expected, and the Pirates, who are showing strong signs of shedding their 20-year streak of futility.

JAFFE: Is this finally the year the Pirates finish above .500?

Admittedly, this is inexact science, with no accounting for run differentials — which are more predictive of future performance than current won-loss records — strength of schedule or injuries. For that level of sophistication, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report is a superior tool. The report uses a Monte Carlo simulation to account for all of those aforementioned factors, including the PECOTA projections and expected distribution of playing time on the roster, so it still harbors more hope for a squad of proven players like the Dodgers (whose projected remaining winning percentage is .540) than the Rockies (for whom the figure is just .481) despite the discrepancy of their current record; overall, both teams project to finish with 81 wins.

According to the report, 10 teams have chances of playing in October that are lower than 4.0 percent: the Royals, Padres, Mariners, Blue Jays, Cubs, Mets, Brewers, Twins, Marlins and Astros (big shocker on the last two, right?). Another three teams have less than a 20.0 percent chance: the Phillies, White Sox and Orioles (15.0 percent, something of a surprise given that they’re four games over .500). The Rockies, Dodgers, Angels and Rays range from 20.0 to 32.3 percent; to borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra, it’s getting late early for those teams. The A’s, Indians, Nationals and Giants are between 38.4 to 44.4 percent, a range where positive surprises are starting to cross paths with more heavily favored contenders.  The Diamondbacks, Pirates and Red Sox range between 51.9 percent and 66.9 percent, where things are starting to look particularly positive. The other six teams — the Yankees, Braves, Cardinals, Reds, Rangers and Tigers — all have at least an 80.0 percent chance at making the playoffs via that methodology, with the Tigers topping the majors at 91.1 percent.

With more than two-thirds of the season left to play, it’s too early for any team to start printing playoff tickets, and for the range of possibilities under the expanded 10-team system, we need only look back to see that both the A’s (22-28) and Tigers (23-27) mounted late-season rallies to win their respective divisions. Again harkening back to the esteemed philosophy of Berra, the moral of the story is that it still ain’t over.


Fact Check, the Brewers and Twins play each other to reach the 50 game mark, so one of them had to make 20 wins (considering it's a few days after this article was written, it was the Twins)


Can someone please explain to me the stupid camo uniforms that MLB was marketing yesterday? Talk about pandering. Memorial Day is when we honor those that gave their life for their country. It is not when millionaires dress up like members of the Desert Storm softball team. That is insulting and more than a little moronic. How about wearing red, white and blue or black bands on their uniforms? But not dressing up like soldiers in order to move merchandise.

nathan l
nathan l

The 2012 Red Sox were not an abberartion. Counting September of 2011, that team played awful baseball for more than a calendar year. 

While chemistry is often overrated in sports, there wasn't a week that went by without reminders of what a bad clubhouse that was-- whether it was Lester throwing sunflower seeds in a coach's face, Beckett playing golf when supposedly hurt or Bobby V not knowing the team was facing a left handed pitcher that night. 

To be fair, the Red Sox media,really, really wanted people to believe that team was a contender, but there's a reason that team basically paid the price of Alex Gonzales to get out from under Beckett and C.C. 


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Strange that the Red Sox have a 66.9% chance while the Yankees have a >80% chance - seeing that the two teams are tied for first place in the AL East. The Yankees are on a downward trend so that Monte Carlo scenario is looking pretty worthless to me right now.


Maybe so, but I'd be shocked if proceeds from the sale of the camo merchandise wasn't donated to a reputable military charity like Wounded Warriors and others. In that case, they do more good than just wearing a black armband.


@FeliciaFitzgerald Downward trend? In what fantasy world are the Yanks on a downward trend? Their key players will be returning soon and the backups being used now are doing quite well, thank you.


@rtspear The Yankees just lost to the Mets 1-2. Granderson and Phelps just got hurt. It's not fantasy, it's Cold Hard Reality.

The Red Sox have 32 wins, the Yankees have 30 wins. Explain to me again why the Yankees have a >80% chance of reaching the playoffs while the Red Sox only have a 66.9% chance?


@FeliciaFitzgerald @rtspear Anyone who refers to a baseball score as "losing 1-2" isn't worth giving an explanation to, other than to explain that if you're on the winning side of a 2-1 game, you won the game 2-1. If you're on the losing side of a 2-1 game, you lost the game 2-1.