Despite Major League Baseball’s efforts to create the impression of a marathon season in which anything can happen, a team’s fate is usually sealed after two months, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
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Major League Baseball proposed a rule change last month that would expand the number of playoff teams to 10 from eight, as early as next year. The idea was to create competition for more teams further into the season.
Some traditionalists howled, and argued the game is already gloriously unpredictable. Baseball’s supremacy is determined during six grueling months, culminating in the pennant race of August and September. Anything can happen.
But the numbers say they’re wrong. Much of the drama of the season is pretty much over after 50 games — by June 1. By then, about one-third of the teams are out of it and another half-dozen will join them if they don’t get hot quickly.
Since 1996, just nine percent of teams with a losing record on June 1 wound up with 90 wins, the number teams usually shoot for to make the playoffs, according to data crunched by The Wall Street Journal and Ben Alamar, founder of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports.
During that early season period, the average correlation between a team’s win percentage on June 1 and its final winning percentage is 0.76. Statisticians consider that to be a very high correlation.
By those measures, fans in Houston, Minnesota, Seattle, Arizona, San Diego, Pittsburgh and both sides of Chicago can start waiting until next year, barring a dramatic turnaround in the next week-and-a-half.
Just below them, hovering a few games under .500 and with hope dwindling are teams in a half-dozen other towns, from Washington to Milwaukee, Los Angeles and half of New York, whose fans might want to start thinking about football.
"By May, you know," said Harold Reynolds, former All-Star second baseman for the Seattle Mariners and now an analyst for the MLB Network.
That’s why the best players and teams, no matter what they say when the microphones are on, are trained to ignore the old saw that "it’s a long season."
They approach the games and at-bats in April and May with at least the same level of intensity as the ones in September, knowing that a victory or a loss could be even more important early on.
There are always exceptions. The Red Sox this season started 2-11 but are 20-9 since then and are creeping up on the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays.
And to be sure, there is the occasional team that is sluggish through the spring and catches fire in August and September. But baseball’s two most famous comeback clubs, the 1978 Yankees and the 1951 Giants, were 29-18 and 22-21 respectively on June 1.