On the one hand, it’s ludicrous even to be looking at this, because it’s so early in the schedule. In NFL terms, this is like projecting playoff matchups at about the two-minute warning of Week 1. And yet... History shows us that even over such a small sample as ten games, baseball teams that have done well in the beginning, own a much better chance of reaching the post-season than those that have done badly. Indeed, as we’ll see, there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “You can’t win the division in April, but you can certainly lose it.” With the D-backs putting up one of their best starts ever, it’s worth looking at what the past can tell us - albeit mumbling, and suffering from a bad cold - about future possibilities.
It’s something we’ve looked at in previous campaigns, but is certainly worth a revisit, given the almost unprecedented fast start from the team this season. Things are certainly looking more optimistic than they were. Fangraphs projection system gave the D-backs just an 8.6% chance of making the post-season before Opening Day. However, the recent run of success, to the point where no team in the major-leagues has more wins Arizona, has more than doubled those odds in ten games, to 18.2%. However, this is based not just on their current record, but also factors in the Fangraphs projections of how the team will play the rest of the way.
If we look just at actual W-L record through 10 games, and how things play out subsequently for those teams, things are actually brighter still for the 2017 Diamondbacks. I looked at 19 years worth of data, since Arizona entered the league in 1998. That gives us 570 seasons in total, with 162 clubs that made the post-season, and 408 which did not. Here’s a breakdown of those teams’ records over the first 10 games, divided up by whether they reached the playoffs or not.
The first 10 games, 1998-2016
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At the top, even going 8-2 or better is far from a guarantee of post-season action, with almost half of those teams (15 of 32) failing to reach the playoffs. However, considering how early this is, that’s still significantly more than the 28% you’d expect by chance. We see that even a less decisive winning record still has a positive impact on playoff odds, before we hit the break-even point. Unsurprisingly, teams at .500 have exactly the 28% post-season chance you’d think. But it’s what happens below that which is perhaps most interesting. Specifically, a bad start has a historical track record of severely marking down your odds.
Of 84 teams to have started the year 3-7 or worse over the last nineteen years, only seven, or one franchise in a dozen, were able to rebound enough to reach the post-season. Surprisingly, despite the recent introduction of a second wild-card spot, none have been in that era. Indeed, the last side to do so in the National League was a decade ago, when the 2007 Phillies began 2-8, before rebounding to win the East with an 89-73 record. Since then, 26 National League teams have won three or fewer games over their first ten; all 26 have failed to reach the playoffs.
That’s why Wednesday night’s game was kinda crucial for the Giants. Defeat would have consigned them to a 3-7 record, and inducted them into this club for the 2017 season. Instead, they were denied entry. Though actually, not many teams are to be found therein yet this year. The AL do have the Blue Jays and Mariners locked in as “zombie teams” - their seasons are likely dead, they just haven’t stopped moving yet. But even the NL worst Atlanta Braves could still join the Giants in dodging this early-season bullet, if they win their remaining two games before reaching double digits.
We’ll revisit things in a further 10 games, and see what the situation is at that point, both for the Diamondbacks, and how early season form correlates with post-season odds.