Hot April starts put clubs on fast track
April is over, but it can never be dismissed as a part of the baseball calendar.
The tension, and the attention, may be greater in September, but the games all count the same in the standings. And the old baseball adage -- pennants aren't won in April, but they can be lost then -- might even be true.
Is April success, or lack of success, a reasonable predictor regarding what will happen over the next five months of the season? A study of the past 20 seasons, since Major League Baseball went to the three-division-per-league, expanded-postseason format, reveals that the first month of the season is equally good at predicting either success or failure over the course of the entire campaign.
Teams that lose a lot early very often stay in that same direction all season. From 1995 through 2014, there were 120 last-place finishes in the six divisions. Of those clubs, 57 (or 47.5 percent) had been in last place after the first month of the season.
Those are remarkably consistent, if inadequate performances. What about the other side of the coin? How often does early success point to success over the six-month marathon of a season?
Of the 120 teams that won divisions in the past two decades, once again 57 (or 47.5 percent) led their divisions after the first month. April performance turns out to be a consistent predictor of longer-term performance, both plus and minus.
We are talking here about Aprils in 19 of 20 cases. In 1995, following the players' union strike in 1994, the season did not begin until late April, so May was the first full month of that season. The 1995 season was also the beginning of the Wild Card era. How does April performance stack up as a predictor of Wild Card success?
To the surprise of no one who has been paying attention, of the teams in position to qualify as Wild Cards at the end of the first month of play, 48.1 percent ended up qualifying for the postseason, either as a Wild Card or as a division winner.
If your favorite club is leading a division, or in a spot good enough for a Wild Card berth as May begins, it has, based on the past 20 years, nearly a 50-percent chance of qualifying for the postseason. Semi-congratulations are in order.
On the other hand, if your favorite team is in last place, two decades of recent history are not particularly encouraging. However, there are exceptions, notable exceptions, to the 47.5 percent of the clubs that were last at the end of April and subsequently were still last at the end of the season.
For instance, the Oakland Athletics were last in the American League West, with an 8-17 record, at the end of April 2001. But after that, they went 94-43, including an incredible 63-18 in the second half. It wasn't their fault that the Seattle Mariners were setting a record with 116 victories in 2001. But the A's still finished with 102 victories, a record for a Wild Card team. They were proof that huge comebacks were possible, and that Wild Card teams could be among the best teams in the game.
In 2007, the Colorado Rockies, managed by Clint Hurdle, were last in the National League West at the end of April with a 10-16 mark. From there, they went 80-57, including winning 14 of their last 15 regular-season games. The Rockies qualified for the postseason as the NL Wild Card, swept through two rounds of the postseason with seven straight victories, then were swept themselves by the Red Sox in the World Series.
Colorado was last again at the end of April 2009, with an 8-12 record. Jim Tracy replaced Hurdle as manager in late May, and the Rockies went 74-42 from that point. Colorado again qualified as the Wild Card, and Tracy won the NL Manager of the Year Award.
There have obviously been other notable comebacks after slow starts, just as there have been disheartening collapses after successful starts. But the record will show that roughly half the time, April gives us a very good idea of who will still be around in October and who will be contemplating major overhauls.