Monday, May 4, 2015

What do the first 25 games mean, historically?

Keith Law said on Buster Olney's podcast last week - when the Astros were 14-7, I believe - that the Astros' start was not for real, and that you shouldn't put much faith in it. This is something we're used to hearing lately. "Don't get used to it!" "Regression is a faithless lover and a whore that will give you a venereal disease!" Something along those lines. Well, now that the Astros are 18-7, has that opinion changed at all? Of course, I don't *really* believe that the Astros are going to go 155-7. I don't have any statistics to back that up over the last week and a half, mind you. The 2015 Astros *probably* aren't the 2001 Mariners, on their way to 116-46 (though that's exactly what it would be if the Astros played the next 137 games at their current pace), and who were - coincidentally - the last team to have at least a 7-game division lead on May 3.

But this very arbitrary 25 game there something to leading the division at the 25-game mark that bodes well for the Astros forcing Taylor Swift to move that concert? I looked at the playoff teams from the last ten years to see how they fared after 25 games, and if there were any indicators there. So let's get into it, eh?

First off: What the Astros have done to this point in the season is pretty rare. From 2005-2014 there have only been six teams start the season 18-7. No team in that time frame started off the season 19-6. All six were 18-7 at the 25-game mark. Four of those six went on to make the playoffs.

A couple of notes: I am extremely tired. My daughter was up between 1am-4am this morning and, as a result, so was I. I also spent a lot of energy mocking Mariners fans on Twitter dot com today. There's a decent possibility that I'm overlooking something very important. Also, I kept the close-up look to the last three years, or the 2nd Wild Card Team Era, when an extra team makes the playoffs. A more comprehensive study going back another seven years, or so, would work some of these kinks out. Had I started this a couple of hours earlier, I could have worked that in. So go in knowing these two basic limitations: Time, and intelligence. 

2012-2014 Overview:

Average 25-game record of playoff teams: 14-11
Best 25-game record of eventual playoff team: 2013 Boston Red Sox, 18-7.
Best 25-game record of eventual non-playoff team: 2014 Milwaukee Brewers, 18-7.
Largest Division Lead of eventual playoff team: 2012 Texas Rangers, 4.5 games
Largest Division Lead of eventual non-playoff team: 2014 Milwaukee Brewers, 1.0 games


Average Record (of eventual playoff teams): 14-11
Average Division Lead: 1.8 games
Average Division Deficit: 2.8 games
Best Record: Milwaukee Brewers (18-7)

Of the ten eventual playoff teams in 2014, the average record after 25 games was 13.5-11.5. You could make this 14-11 or 13-12, whatever blows your skirt up. Only three of the ten playoff teams had the division lead outright, and the 15-10 A's were tied with the Rangers for the AL West lead after 25 games. The Tigers had the best record of those ten eventual playoff teams, at 16-9. The 2014 Milwaukee Brewers had the best record of non-playoff teams, at a frighteningly similar 18-7, and the Braves were 17-8.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel had this terrifyingly familiar postmortem in October:
Upon watching the Brewers' free-swinging, all-or-nothing offense in action, each of those visitors inevitably asked the same question: Can the team sustain that kind of unorthodox attack over a full season? By season's end, the answer was obvious: No. Opponents began exploiting the Brewers' lack of plate discipline and dependence on the home run, and the runs dried up.

*Shivers* Moving on.


Average Record: 14-11
Average Division Lead: 1.8
Average Division Deficit: 3.1
Best record: Boston Red Sox (18-7)

In 2013, the best record in baseball at the 25-game mark would belong to the Boston Red Sox, at 18-7, who had a 2.5 game lead on the Yankees. The Braves, at 16-9, led the NL East by 3.5 games; the 16-9 Rangers, who would go on to lose a Game 163 against Wild Card winners Tampa Bay, had a two-game lead on the A's. Only four of the ten eventual 2013 playoff teams had a division lead at the 25-game mark, and the largest one belonged to the Braves. Five of those ten playoff teams were at least 14-11, but none were worse than 12-13. The Red Sox would go on to win 97 games and the World Series.


Average Record: 14-11
Average Division Lead: 3.2
Average Division Deficit: 2.9
Best Record: Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays (17-8)

2012 is not a good sign for our fair Astros. Only three of the eventual ten playoff teams had a division lead at 25 games, and though the Cardinals (3.5 game lead) reached the NLCS, the Rangers (4.5 games would lose the Wild Card game to the Orioles. The 2012 Rays had a one-game lead at 25 games, with a 17-8 record. They would finish the season 73-64, but would get lapped by the Yankees and Orioles to miss the playoffs despite a 90-72 record. Still, of the five teams who were at least 16-9, four would make the postseason.


Four teams between 2005 and 2011 started the season 18-7: the 2010 Rays, 2008 Diamondbacks, and the 2005 and 2006 White Sox. All but the 08 D-Backs made the playoffs.

18-7 teams:
2010 Tampa Bay Rays - made playoffs (96-66)
2008 Arizona Diamondbacks - missed playoffs (82-80)
2006 Chicago White Sox - missed playoffs (90-72)
2005 Chicago White Sox - made playoffs (99-63)


You only have to look back to the 2014 Brewers to see that a fast start built on home runs is not a guarantee of postseason glory. Hell, Ron Roenicke got fired today, after Milwaukee's late-season collapse continued into a slow start this year. But four of the six teams that started 18-7 made the playoffs, while two won the World Series. All six finished the season over .500, with an average record of 91-71. I didn't think the Astros were a 90-win team...I also didn't think the Astros would win 18 of their first 25 games.

Are the Astros this good? Probably not. But it's at least encouraging that the likes of Jake Marisnick and Colby Rasmus are propping up the bats of Chris Carter, Evan Gattis (who is warming up), and George Springer (who is at least getting on base). Are the Astros World Series contenders? Not remotely, not yet. But this is the discussion we're having right now. We're not having the "Who are the Astros going to trade for prospects" discussion on May 3, and that's a good thing.


Jason said...

I'm sure we may hear the comparision of the 2015 Astros to the 2014 Brewers, but we should note that while there are some similarities, there are also some key differences: 1. The Milwaukee Sentinal correctly pointed out that while the Brewers were prolific with the home runs, they did not have good plate discipline. I think the 2015 Astros are different, as evidenced by their walk rate and the fact that a few key players are fantastic contact hitters (Altuve, Marisnick, Lowrie, and I think Springer will eventually join this group).
2. The Astros pitching will probably play out better than the Brewers' did last season.
3. The Brewers were in a strong division last year with a lot of playoff contenders. While I expect the Mariners, Angels, and maybe Oakland to get back on track, there's nothing to suggest that will happen anytime soon. Even as the Astros regress as the season moves along, I'm not convinced that the other teams will improve enough to completely knock Houston out.

All that said, I'm not counting on the Astros in the playoffs yet. I want to see where things stand at the AS break before making that jump, but I do think that there are plenty of reasons to believe that key factors will prevent them from repeating the Brewers' 2014 performance.

(Side note: you mention that the 2008 DBacks were the only team from that particular list that didn't make the playoffs, but then you mention that the Sox missed the playoffs too.)

Chaz R said...

This is really good. Probably the biggest discriminator for the Astros right now is not the prolific offense, but pitching and defense. Today the Astros are 4th in AL in pitching and (Lord have mercy!) 2nd in all of the MLB in defense. Let's not forget, the Astros finished 2014 at the bottom of baseball in defense.

How much regression can we really expect in these areas. It's hard to say really- we did lose Lowrie, but we will get back Oberholtzer soon. Certainly the pitching has been helped by the good offensive showing, but I wouldn't expect, absent injuries, a sever regression in either of these areas. I think it's very possible they play .500 or better baseball for the rest of the year and be in the mid-high 80s win, possibly contending for a Wild Card.