Cream rises to top in second half
It's an article of baseball faith that the second half of the season is the more important one. Why else our preoccupation with how teams and players perform in September, after the break and "down the stretch"?
On one level, this belief of ours is demonstrably untrue. After all, if your team fritters away the division by a single game, then their loss on April 30 is no less important than the one on Sept. 30. All 162 games count the same in the standings, after all.
What is true, however, is that, as the concept of Leverage Index teaches us, the deeper into the season we get, the less time there is for teams to recover from those losses and make up ground in the standings.
For that reason, we (somewhat illogically) place more emphasis on games in the second half.
But let's lay those cherished misconceptions aside and approach the issue from another angle.
The question: How do teams that go on to the postseason tend to fare in the second half? Do they fare better, worse or generally same the compared with the early months of the season? Stated another way, do October-bound teams tend to gain or lose momentum as we flip the pages of the calendar?
To probe this issue — and to get us in that "stretch drive spirit" now that the first half and All-Star Game are nearly out of the way — we've run some numbers. For the sake of relevance, we've confined our research to the "wild card" era — i.e., 1994 and onward, the span over which MLB has had eight-team playoff fields.
Here's some of what we learned:
• Since 1995 (remember, thanks to the greed of ownership, we had no playoffs in 1994), the 120 teams making the postseason have, as a group, posted a first-half winning percentage of .573 and a second-half winning percentage of .596. That's a significant improvement, and the numbers don't account for the fact that teams that clinch early might "pump the breaks" late in the season so as to prevent injury and fatigue (and thus lose some games they might otherwise have won).
• As well, 65 percent of teams going on to the playoffs posted a higher winning percentage in the second half than they did in the first half.
• When it comes to down-the-stretch intrigue, here, perhaps, is the heart of the matter: 34.2 percent of teams making the postseason since 1995 were not in playoff position at the break. That is, they played well enough in the second half to move into playoff position. Certainly, you don't want your team to be in need of a '51 Giants/'78 Yankees/'07 Phillies-style miracle, but if they're just a handful of games on the outside, there's a reasonable chance they'll catch up.
• A total of 23 out of 120 playoff teams posted more wins in the second half than they did in the first half despite uniformly playing many fewer games after the break.
• And from the perhaps-not-entirely-meaningful-but-still-worth-noting category, there's this: Of those 120 playoff teams, 12 finished the first half with a .500 or losing record. However, just three of those same teams — the 2005 Padres, the 2006 Cardinals and the 2006 Tigers — posted a .500 or worse record in the second half of the season.
• The undisputed kings of the second half? For the era in question, it's the 2001 Oakland A's, who went an eye-popping 58-17 (winning percentage = .773) after the break. On the other, grimmer end of the continuum, we have the aforementioned '05 Padres, who were 34-39 in the second half. (Of course, those Padres won just 82 games on the season and made the playoffs solely because they played in the weakest division in the history of ever.)
So as playoff teams go, it's clear they tend to surge late in the year, at least in the era of the expanded playoffs. While it remains illogical to say that September contests are more important than those earlier on the schedule, there is a strong relationship between earning a playoff berth and succeeding down the stretch. Keep that in mind as the season in our midst barrels toward its own stretch drive. History suggests that the bar is about to be raised.