Thursday, October 1, 2009

Backing into the postseason?

Even as the Red Sox were wrapping up the wild card thanks to a loss by the Texas Rangers late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, panic had started to set in throughout Red Sox fandom.

A 12-0 defeat to Roy Halladay and the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday -- the junior-varsity lineup on the field notwithstanding -- only seems to have amplified the panic. If the Red Sox don't generate any momentum heading into the postseason, as has been said, they're already dead in the water.

Don't tell that to the Red Sox, though.

"If you look at all the data that's out there, even finishing strong over the last week, two weeks, month, it actually has no bearing whatsoever on how the team performs in October," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said. “It feels better when you finish strong. I want to finish strong. We all want to finish strong. It feels better.

"But the difference between how you feel and what actually matters, if you look at it -- I'm sure there's evidence of teams finishing strong and going on to win the World Series. But for every one of those examples, there's an example of a team finishing strong and getting swept, or a team that lost 15 of its last 18 going into October and winning the World Series, so if you break down the numbers, there's simply no correlation."

"The next five games are kind of cosmetic," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said before Wednesday's rout. "I hope our record is better than it is worse. But these games will have no bearing on what we do next week."

Still, though, the natural impulse is to feel uncomfortable every time a playoff-bound starts to lose games. How predictive is it? Let's look at the history. Because it's an easy cut-off point, we'll look at how the World Series teams this decade have fared from Game No. 151 on:

Phillies: 9-3 (swept Nationals in final series)
Rays: 7-5 (lost three of last four)

Red Sox: 6-6 (split final series with Twins)
Rockies: 12-1 (won play-in game with Padres)

Cardinals: 3-9 (won two of last three)
Tigers: 5-7 (lost final five straight)

White Sox: 8-4 (won final five straight)
Astros: 7-5 (split final series with Cubs)

Note: Paul Byrd's Angels dominated the White Sox in a mid-September series only to get annihilated in the ALCS.

Red Sox: 8-4 (lost finale to Orioles)
Cardinals: 6-6 (lost six of last eight)

Note: The Cardinals even were swept by the Astros in Houston during the final week of the season -- including a sweep-clinching game in which Roger Clemens outdueled Jeff Suppan. Three weeks later, Suppan outdueled Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS.

Marlins: 8-4 (won six of final seven)
Yankees: 7-4-1 (won three of final four)

Angels: 4-7 (won two of final three)
Giants: 10-2 (won final eight straight)

Diamondbacks: 8-4 (lost final two)
Yankees: 6-4-1 (lost three of final four)

Yankees: 2-10 (lost final seven straight)
Mets: 9-3 (won final five straight)

Note: Among the scores by which the Yankees lost games in the final week in 2000: 15-4, 11-1, 11-3, 13-2, 9-1.

Here's the final breakdown:
* Twelve of the 18 World Series teams have gone into the postseason with better than a .500 record, and two others were 6-6 in their final 12 games. (Keep in mind, of course, that just about every World Series team starts off with an excellent record to begin with, so .500 isn't necessarily the best baseline.)
* On the other hand, three of the last nine World Series winners -- the 2006 Cardinals, 2002 Angels and 2000 Yankees -- went into the playoffs backsliding badly.

What can we learn? About as much as we can learn from the skid the Red Sox are in right now.

Good teams hit slumps, too -- and good teams pull out of slumps eventually. Nothing about the final week really can tell you anything about how a team will fare in the postseason.

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