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April an early test for the Arizona Diamondbacks' title hopes

The Diamondbacks start the year off with three games against the Colorado Rockies. We'd better hope to sweep sweep those, because the rest of the month is looking an awful lot tougher.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

After the light warm-up of three games against the Colorado Rockies - recently predicted by USA Today to be in line for the worst season in franchise history, the Diamondbacks then face the Chicago Cubs for four games, whom the same article projected to have the best record in all of baseball. This is then followed by a ten-game road-trip through the rest of the National League West, visiting the Dodgers, Padres and Giants, before we return to Chase for three facing the Pirates and four versus the Cardinals.

That'a 24 contests, with the majority (14) against teams who won 92 games or better last season, and against LA, STL CHC and PIT, the D-backs were just 9-29.  Throw in San Francisco as well - picked by multiple sources to be the winners of the West - and it's a stiff, early test of the team's credentials as wannabe contenders for 2016. This is significant because, while you can't win a playoff spot in April, you can severely damage your chances of one by getting out of the gates slowly. Even as soon as ten games into the season, history shows that W-L record may not tell us which teams will make the post-season, but can give us a good idea which ones won't.

Since 1998, when the majors expanded to 30 teams, here's the breakdown of W-L record over the first 10 games, both for playoff teams and overall.

Wins W% Playoffs Total Playoff %
8+ .800 14 27 .519
7 .700 28 68 .412
6 .600 36 99 .364
5 .500 37 131 .282
4 .400 30 138 .217
3 .300 4 45 .089
2 .200 3 25 .120
0 or 1 .100 0 7 .000

This illustrates what I mentioned earlier. You can't win a playoff spot in the first two weeks, with even an 8-2 start or better, giving barely an even chance of playing into October. Witness, say, the 2003 Royals, who won their first nine contests, on the way to a 16-3 start, yet finished two above .500. What's interesting is more at the other end. Of 77 teams to have won fewer than four of their first 10 games, only seven were then able to recover and reach the playoffs. The last such in the National League were the 2007 Phillies, since when those NL teams are 0-22, their seasons effectively zombiefied by the middle of April - dead, even if they didn't know it yet.

So, if we don't go at least 4-6 versus the Rockies, Cubs and Dodgers, it will be an uphill struggle for the Diamondbacks. Of course, no-one is going to write the season off if that happens. For on the other hand, it's worth noting that of the team's five post-season appearances, only one (2007) saw the team start hot, going 7-3 through their first ten - they went 4-6 in 1999 and 2001, and were even at 5-5 in 2002 and 2011). We went 8-2 in 2008, and that didn't end well, again evidence that the major-league season is a marathon, and not a sprint. But it's a marathon where it doesn't take long for the field to separate out, as we see if we go a little further, to 20 games in.

There, we find a sharp division in results for teams at the 12-8 mark. Above that, you've got a 56% chance of making the playoffs, but between 12-8 and 11-9, those odds drop to 36%; if you're at or below .500, it's only 17% - put another way, we're still in April, yet around half of the teams have been reduced to outsiders. The odds continue to decline as we go forward. At or below .500 thirty games in? Less than a 14% chance of seeing the playoffs, and much comes from the teams that are 15-15. Under that, about one month in, you'll find just 26 playoff teams over 18 seasons since the D-backs joined baseball, who were able to come back over the next five months.

It isn't impossible: the Pirates did it, in both 2014 and 2015, and the Dodgers the season before that. But we're generally talking one team in each league, even with the extra spot available the past few years. It's something I'd rather avoid, shall we say, making what is already a tough furrow for us to plow, even harder. If we can instead go 4-2 in the "soft" April series against the Padres and Rockies, and simply split the remaining eighteen, against opponents who largely gave us nightmares in 2015, we'll reach the end of this brutal opening stretch 13-11, and I'd say, in decent shape.