In case you’ve forgotten about baseball after the Labor Day Hangover and the start of football season, here’s a quick recap: Indians good; D-Backs also good; Dodgers very bad.
The Indians have won fifteen games on the trot, setting a new record for the longest win streak in franchise history. It’s the longest win streak in MLB since the Oakland Athletics won 20 straight back in 2002. Eleven of the fifteen wins have come on the road. During the win streak, Cleveland has posted a +81 run differential, outscoring their opponents 109-28. In short, the #WWWWWWWWWWWWWWWIndians are rolling.
If not for Cleveland’s monster win streak, we’d be talking more about the Arizona Diamondbacks, who’ve compiled quite the streak of their own. They’ve swept each of their division rivals over the past two weeks, including two sweeps of the Dodgers, to post a 13-game win streak. They’ve outscored their foes 80-27 over the 13-game streak to post a +53 differential. The ground they’ve made up in the NL postseason race is even more valuable; they probably won’t catch the Dodgers for the NL West pennant, but they’ve built a 7-game cushion in the wildcard race over the Rockies.
Speaking of those Dodgers, where have they gone? They still hold the best record in baseball, but they’ve gone 3-12 since Rich Hill lost a no-hitter in extras on August 23. The pitching has fallen off the wagon, giving up 77 runs over those 15 games (good for a 5.13 ERA). The offense hasn’t been good either, scoring one run or less in 7 of their past 15. Instead of looking up at history, they’re looking cautiously down in the standings at the Nationals, who are just 6 games back in the race for home field.
Two teams with momentum; one with a great record, but the engine in neutral. Which would you rather be?
Typical anecdotal evidence suggests that you’d want to be the D-Backs or Indians. You always want to be playing your best baseball going into the postseason, right? It’s not always the best team that wins; it’s the one that gets hot at the right time.
Whelp. The data disagrees.
I looked at the past eleven seasons in baseball to investigate. (Why eleven? I wanted to include the 2006 Tigers team. Call me biased.) I looked for three things: One, who had the best record that season; two, who had the best record in September (and October, if regular season games carried into that month; I’ve referred to this as September+); and three, how each of those teams fared in the postseason.
Here are the results. The two records in the second column are the teams’ regular season records and their September+ records. The colored text denotes a team that won the World Series.
|September vs. Season||Team||
|Best Record||CHC (103-58), (18-11)||Won World Series (4-3)|
|Best September+||BOS (19-10), (93-69)||Lost to CLE in ALDS (3-0)|
|Best Record||STL (100-62), (15-13)||Lost to CHC in NLDS (3-1)|
|Best Sep+||CHC (23-9), (97-65)||Lost to NYM in NLCS (4-0)|
|Best Record||LAA (98-64), (15-11)||Lost to KC in ALDS (3-0)|
|Best Sep+||WAS (18-8), (96-66)||Lost to SF in NLDS (3-1)|
|Best Record||BOS (97-65), (16-9); STL (97-65), (19-8)||Won World Series (4-2); Lost World Series (4-2).|
|Best Sep+||CLE (21-6), (92-70)||Lost Wildcard to TB.|
|Best Record||WAS (98-64), (18-13)||Lost NLDS to STL (3-2)|
|Best Sep+||ATL (20-10), (94-68); SF (20-10), (94-68)||Lost Wildcard to STL; Won World Series (4-0).|
|Best Record||PHI (102-60), (16-14)||Lost NLDS to STL (3-2)|
|Best Sep+||DET (20-6), (95-67)||Lost ALCS to TEX (4-2)|
|Notes||TEX Sep+ 19-6; STL Sep+ 18-8.|
|Best Record||PHI (97-65), (23-7)||Lost NLCS to SF (4-2)|
|Best Sep+||PHI (23-7), (97-65)||Lost NLCS to SF (4-2)|
|Best Record||NYY (103-59), (20-11)||Won Series over PHI (4-2)|
|Best Sep+||MIN (21-11), (87-76).||Lost ALDS to NYY (3-0)|
|Best Record||LAA (100-62), (17-9)||Lost ALDS to BOS (3-1)|
|Best Sep+||PHI (17-8), (92-70); LAD (17-8), (84-74)||Won Series over TB (4-1); Lost NLCS to PHI (4-1)|
|Best Record||BOS (96-66), (16-11); CLE (96-66) (19-9)||Won Series over COL (4-0); Lost ALCS to BOS (4-3).|
|Best Sep+||COL (21-8), (90-73).||Lost Series to BOS (4-0)|
|Best Record||NYY (97-65), (18-12); NYM (97-65), (15-15)||Lost ALDS to DET (3-1); Lost NLCS to STL (4-3).|
|Best Sep+||SD (20-9), (88-74)||Lost NLDS to STL (3-1).|
That’s a whole big confusing table, but here’s the recap: in the past eleven years, the team with the best record in the regular season has won it all just four times; the team with the best record at the end of the season has won it just twice.
The data really isn’t all that conclusive one way or the other. Sure, it gives the edge to teams with the best record over teams that get hot at the right time, but the advantage is remarkably slight. Predicting that either the best record or the hottest team would win the World Series over the past 11 seasons only produces the right answer six times–just over 50%. That’s a pretty poor rate.
From at least the past eleven seasons, we can conclude that the Diamondbacks and the Indians aren’t necessarily more likely to win the World Series just because they’ve gotten hot at the right time. Plenty of teams with great Septembers have fallen short in the playoffs; just look at the 2011 Tigers, who were knocked out by the Rangers in the ALCS, or the 2010 Phillies, victims of the eventual-champion Giants in the NLCS. Perhaps the 2017 Diamondbacks suffer the same fate as the 2013 Cleveland Indians. That team had one of the best Septembers of this millennium, but in a single winner-take-all wildcard game they were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Rays. Great ends to the regular season don’t translate into championships.
But what of the Dodgers? They may have the best record, but can a team that limped it’s way into the postseason make it all the way through October? It’s been done before, but it’s rare. In the past eleven years only two teams had a losing record in September and then won the Series: the 2015 Royals and the 2006 Cardinals. The 2014 Giants were just one game above .500 in September.
Such turnarounds aren’t the norm, however. The average World Series Champion since 2006 has had a .600 winning percentage through September. A ball club doesn’t have to be the best team in baseball down the stretch to have a better chance at the Series; it does help, however, to play above-average baseball rather than limp into the postseason.
In short, baseball is weird and wonderful. Sometimes the best regular season team rolls through the playoffs. Sometimes teams that struggled in September come out of nowhere to win it all. Do the respective hot streaks for the Indians and D-Backs mean they’re more likely to win the Series? Not necessarily; just like the Dodgers’ recent slump isn’t a harbinger of doom for the team. There’s still all to play for.