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Does Finishing Strong Matter In The Playoffs?

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After a lackluster 3-4 road trip against the teams with the worst two records in baseball, things are undoubtedly a little more turbulent than we would like on the Dodger ride to the postseason.  It is understandable to feel uneasy after the trip; if the Dodgers can't win four of seven against the Nationals and Pirates, how can they win four of seven, or three of five, against the best teams in the league, starting next week?

Team W-L GB
Dodgers 93-64 ---
Phillies 90-66
Cardinals 90-66
Rockies 88-68

It is times like these when we must remember that the Dodgers still have a lot going for them:

  • They are in the playoffs, no matter what
  • The magic number for the division is one.  Call me crazy, but I think it is highly probable that either the Dodgers will win one of their five games, or the Rockies will lose one of their six.
  • The Dodgers still have a 2½-game lead over both the Cardinals and the Phillies for the best record in the National League, so they are in good shape to secure home field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs
  • Did I mention the Dodgers have clinched a playoff spot?

Ideally, we would all like the Dodgers to win the rest of their games, riding a wave of success into the postseason, where they will use that momentum to propel them to October (and hopefully, November) success.  However, does it really matter how the Dodgers play this week?  Will it have any effect on how they play when it really counts, starting next week?

The answer:  I don't know, and neither do you.

Thanks to BHSportsGuy for this note, but here are the last two times the Dodgers made the postseason, and how they finished the regular season during those years:

  • In 2006, the Dodgers won their last seven games, six on the road, and finished 9-1 in their last 10 games.  Then they got swept by the Mets
  • In 2008, the Dodgers finished just 4-5 in their last nine games, all at home.  Then they swept the Cubs, who had the best record in the National League

I went back to take a look at all the playoff series since the advent of divisional play.  After the jump, we will delve into the data.

The current playoff format has been in place since 1994.  However, as you may remember, there were no playoffs in 1994, thanks to the most bitter and prolonged labor discord between players and owners in baseball history.  So, for our purposes, the current playoff format -- three division winners plus a wild card in each league -- has been in place for 14 seasons, from 1995-2008.  That yields 56 first round playoff series, four per season.

In 1995 and 1996, the home field advantage in the first round was a little screwy.  If a team had home field advantage, it would play the first two games on the road, followed by three at home.  That hardly seems like an advantage to me.  The Dodgers made the playoffs both of those seasons, against the Reds and Braves.  The Dodgers didn't have home field advantage in either year, yet failed to capitalize, losing both home games before heading on the road to be swept away one game later in each series.  So, for our purposes, we will use the home field advantage stats for the first round from 1997-2008, a 12-year period.

I took a look at the last 14 years of the current playoff format, and compared first round opponents using a few factors:

  • Home-field advantage (again, using only the last 12 years)
  • Regular season win-loss record
  • Record in last 10 regular season games
  • Record in last 20 regular season games
  • Record in last 30 regular season games

In some cases, teams had the same record in one of the last four categories, so in that category that series was not counted.  Still, the results were interesting.  Here are the first round playoff results based on these factors:

  • Teams with home field advantage won 24 of 48 1st round series (50.0%)
  • Teams with the better regular season record won 26 of 54 1st round series (48.1%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 10 games won 21 of 46 1st round series (45.7%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 20 games won 22 of 46 1st round series (47.8%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 30 games won 27 of 49 1st round series (55.1%)

I don't see a lot of advantage there in any category.  Perhaps in the final 30 games, that may lead to postseason success, but it doesn't appear to be an overwhelming advantage.  If it is an advantage, the Dodgers look pretty good in that regard.  Here are the National League playoff hopefuls, along with their record over their final 30 games:

Team W-L
Braves 20-10
Dodgers 18-12
Cardinals      18-12
Rockies 16-14
Phillies 16-14

Here are the league championship series results based on these factors:

  • Teams with home field advantage won 15 of 28 league championship series (53.6%)
  • Teams with the better regular season record won 16 of 27 league championship series (59.3%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 10 games won 11 of 20 league championship series (55.0%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 20 games won 12 of 25 league championship series (48.0%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 30 games won 9 of 24 league championship series (37.5%)

Again, it doesn't appear that any kind of strong finish yields a significant advantage.  Maybe regular season record is important in the league championship series, but last I checked the Dodgers in fact have the best record in the National League.

It would be great if the Dodgers perform well over the final week of the season.  I would like to lock up the division, secure the best record in the league, and go into the playoffs on a high note.  Who wouldn't?  However, it seems to me that it won't matter as much how the Dodgers play this week, but rather how they play next week and beyond will determine their fate more than anything.