Analysis

September Standings: Predicting the playoff picture

It’s the beginning of September, and October baseball is looming – there’s officially less than a month until the AL Wild Card game on October 2. If the season ended today, that game would feature the Rays and Indians in Tampa, but there’s a lot of time for the Athletics to make a push. The current standings can give us a lot of information about the playoff picture, but what can we project just by looking at the standings? There’s two ways of looking at possible projections as we head into the final month of the season.

First: we only just left August, but 5 of the 6 division races are basically over. The Dodgers, Astros, and Yankees have virtually locked up their division titles, the Braves have maintained a healthy lead, and the Twins have started to pull away from the Indians. Per Fangraphs, those four teams have at least a 94% chance of winning their division, and at least a 99% chance of making the playoffs.

Second: there’s still a lot of potential for the standings to shuffle up. For one, the Cubs and Cardinals continue to jockey for the NL Central. The AL Wild Card race is interesting too, as one of the Rays, Indians, and Athletics will have to go home early. Including the Cubs, that makes it four teams with playoff chances between 35% and 90%, with one team going home and another having to settle for a one-game playoff.

The question is, how much can we really take away from the standings a month before the season ends? We’ll take the September 1 standings as our starting point, and take a deeper look at how this year’s playoff races stack up to those in the past. We want to find out how much the standings really change in September, and how well we can use them to project playoff baseball.

The Races: Teams in contention

First of all, the number of teams that have a chance at the playoffs this season is on the lower end of recent deviation. If we say a team is in the race if they have, say, a 25% chance or higher of making the playoffs on September 1, then there were eleven teams in playoff contention this year. It’s an arbitrary cutoff, but we can use it to generally compare how many teams have been in contention in recent years.

Compared to 2018, when there were 13 teams in that position on September 1, this year’s race seems somewhat less exciting. In 2017 there were also eleven such teams, and if we go all the way back to 2014, when Fangraphs started calculating playoff chances, we see that this year has seen slightly fewer than average when it comes to the number of teams in contention:

YearNumber of Teams
201911
201813
201711
201613
201510
201413

Winning the division

The biggest regular season goal for every team is to win their division. On September 1, it was only the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers that had pretty much achieved that goal. For other clubs, there’s still plenty of baseball left to play. For example, the Cardinals and Cubs are within three games of each other, but they still have six head-to-head games left.

Historically, if a team leads their division on September 1, they have a pretty safe road to the playoffs. Since the divisional era began in 1994, 124 of 150 September 1 division leaders have gone on to clinch the division, good for about 83%. That makes it about one division winner per season who made their comeback in the final month.

The biggest division comeback came from the Seattle Mariners in the strike-shortened 1995 season. That year, the Mariners made up 6.5 games on the Angels in September to win the AL West. The second largest comeback came from the Brewers just last year, when they won Game 163 and erased the Cubs’ 6-game lead. Interestingly, the Mariners’ feat was even more impressive when you consider that they had just three head-to-head games with the Angels in the final month of the season – last year’s Brewers played seven against the Cubs.

So, barring any historic run at their division, the Braves and Twins have it all but locked up. On September 1, both teams held a 5.5-game lead on their division rivals, and as of this weekend, both teams have extended them further. Of those 26 teams that made a September comeback, they entered the final month 2.5 games back, on average, which basically means that the NL Central is the only division truly in play.

Even safer are the chances of division leaders simply making the playoffs. Every single September 1 division leader since 2014 has gone on to the postseason – that’s 30 out of 30. Ever since the second wild card spot was introduced in 2012, only two teams have fallen completely out of the postseason picture in just one month: the 2012 White Sox and 2013 Rangers.

Both of those teams entered September with just a one-game lead, and the White Sox owned only the fifth-best record in the AL. It’s a very uncertain place to start September, and it showed. There’s no team in quite that position here in 2019, but the Cardinals come close – they entered September with a three-game lead and the fourth-best record in the NL. With that being said, it would take a lot to completely knock out St. Louis, who currently hold a six-game lead over the Phillies, in third place in the wild card.

As expected, there’s not a lot of shuffle-up that can really happen when it comes to division leaders for the rest of this season. From a historical perspective, crazier things have happened, but besides the NL Central we can expect the division leaders on September 1 to see it through to the end.

Wild Card spots

As you might expect, the wild card is a different story. Wild card races usually go down to the wire between two, three, or more teams, so you would expect not to see the same teams hold the Wild Card spots for all of September.

In every year since 2012, there have been four teams with Wild Card spots on September 1. Only twice have those four teams all made the postseason (2015 and 2017). In fact, 2017 was the only year that the same four teams finished in the same four spots – in 2015, the Astros and Rangers swapped places in the AL West standings, but both ended up making the playoffs.

Out of the five teams since 2012 who made a Wild Card run in September, the average comeback was 2.1 games. The most recent team to do it was the Rockies last year, when they made up two games to take the Cardinals’ spot in the one-game playoff. 

Most of the time, it takes a combination of one team’s collapse and another team’s hot streak to make a September comeback. The largest Wild Card comeback was 3.5 games by the 2013 Indians, who earned a playoff spot with a 21-6 September and a ten-game winning streak to end the season. Impressive as it is, it certainly helped that the Rangers had their own September collapse, losing 16 of 28 games and falling completely out of the playoffs.

Winning the World Series

Since 2000, 12 of 19 World Series champions led their division at the beginning of September. In each of the last four years, the eventual champion entered September with the best record in their league: the 2018 Red Sox, 2017 Astros, 2016 Cubs, and 2015 Royals. To keep the pattern going, that puts the pressure on the Yankees or Dodgers to win it this year – those two teams held the best record in their league on the first of the month.

Still, it’s not quite that simple. The team with the best record in baseball entering September has only won the World Series four times since 2000 (about 21%). To go even further, more than half (ten out of nineteen) of the World Series champions in this century have come from one of the top three teams entering that September. The best team doesn’t always win, but even a full month from the end of the season we can get a decent idea of who’ll be the last team standing.

Comparing that to the numbers from the end of each season, there’s very little difference in playoff predictability. Fourteen of the last nineteen champions led their division at the end of the regular season (compared to twelve if we look at September 1). Five of nineteen had the best record in baseball (compared to four), and eight champions were a top-three team at the end of the year (compared to nine).

The moral of the story, at least when it comes to predicting the World Series champ? Whatever you know at the beginning of September, not much is going to change in the final month of the season. September baseball is different, anyway – with September callups and expanded rosters, a contending team has reason to ease their foot off the gas. After clinching the division, at least, most teams tend to exchange on-field performance for resting their stars. Predicting the playoffs at the beginning of September is just as difficult as it is at the end of the year.

Featured Photo: MLB.com

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