Nicholson-Smith: Early success matters in MLB

The 9-13 Blue Jays are preparing to face the Yankees for four games in New York.

Time to panic, or too early to worry? The question echoes around baseball this time every spring, when teams that were expected to contend struggle early on.

This year is no exception, as the Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays all find themselves below .500.

Savvy baseball fans would point out that teams win pennants based on their win totals after 162 games, and that there are no prizes based on April wins. They’d be right.

Yet history tells us that the teams that end up making the playoffs generally do well in April. And teams that struggle badly in the first month of the season do not play at all in October.

In total, 82 teams made the playoffs over the course of the last decade. A Sportsnet study of these teams reveals that 64 of these teams were at or above .500 at the end of April (March games were counted in the analysis, but they’ll be referred to as April games for the sake of simplicity).

While some teams did make the postseason after sub-.500 Aprils, they account for just 22 per cent of all playoff teams. And just one of the last 10 World Series winners finished below .500 in April: the 2003 Florida Marlins.

It’s possible for teams to effectively eliminate themselves from postseason contention if they play poorly enough in the opening month:

  • No team in the last decade made the postseason after losing more than 15 games in April.

  • No team in the last decade made the postseason after finishing the month more than six games below .500.

Five teams reached the postseason after losing 15 games through April 30th: the 2003 Marlins, the 2006 Minnesota Twins, the 2006 San Diego Padres, the 2011 Detroit Tigers and the 2011 Arizona Diamondbacks.

Technically, the 2013 Blue Jays could finish April above .500. After Wednesday’s extra-innings win over the Baltimore Orioles, the Blue Jays are 9-13 with five games remaining before the calendar flips to May.

To this point in 2013 the Marlins, Padres, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners are the only teams that have already fallen at least six games under .500. None were viewed as likely playoff teams entering the season.

The 82 playoff teams had a combined .566 winning percentage through April, putting themselves on pace for 92-win seasons. Here are some telling averages through April for the last decade:

  • Playoff teams won 13.7 games and lost 10.5 games.

  • AL East winners won 14.4 games and lost 9.5 games.

  • World Series winners won 14.7 games and lost 9.7 games.

Keep in mind that the landscape recently changed. Until 2012, just four teams per league made the playoffs.

The odds changed last year, when MLB expanded the postseason to include a fifth team in each league. In doing so, the league lowered the bar for playoff hopefuls and increased the chances that a team could rebound from a slow start to earn a postseason berth.

That, in many ways, was the point of the playoff expansion: spread hope around the league to keep fans interested and ensure revenue streams in. The change could result in more teams like the 2012 Oakland Athletics — clubs that struggle initially then recover to earn a berth in October.

Fans of the Blue Jays and other struggling teams shouldn’t despair. One fifth of recent playoff teams finished below .500 in April, and for most of that 10-year period just four teams per league reached the postseason.

But history suggests that teams that slip more than six games below .500 in the opening month will have an overwhelmingly hard time coming back. Sure, they could technically reach the postseason. Yet no team in recent history has overcome such a significant early deficit.

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