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Is a strong regular season finish needed for playoff success?

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MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at San Francisco Giants John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

This Dodgers season has been one of the most bizarre years in recent memory, and possibly even in MLB history. The team has approached both ends of the spectrum when it comes to streaking in 2017, which makes it hard to pin down exactly where the team stands heading into October.

One thing we know: the Dodgers, even with their 16-of-17 nosedive, are going to the playoffs. That was clinched on Tuesday night. The division title is well within their sights as well, with a 10 game lead with only 16 games left to play.

The question always comes up every season. Does a team’s finish to its regular season matter come October?

I have seen too many examples on both sides to put much stock in how a team finishes in September. The 2006 Dodgers won their final seven games and nine of 10 heading into the playoffs, only to get swept in three games in the NLDS by the Mets. Last year, the Dodgers limped to the finish with five losses in six games in the final week, then won the NLDS and held a 2-1 NLCS lead before falling to the juggernaut Cubs.

The 2015 Royals lost 16 of 24 games during a September stretch, then won the World Series. There are plenty of examples of winners who finished strong, too. The 2011 World Series featured the Cardinals — winners of 15 of their last 20 and 21 of their last 30 — and Rangers, who finished 16-4 and 22-8.

I am of the belief that how a team plays in October is the main determinant of how said team will fare in October, much more so than how the team played in September, or how they played in any of the other months of the season. But I wanted to check to see if this has played out in reality.

Back in 2009, Jay Jaffe at Baseball Prospectus studied the issue and found there was little to no correlation between September performance and playoff success:

As the postseason unfolds over the next few weeks, you're going to hear a lot about momentum and its importance to a ballclub, and while it's undoubtedly a good idea to bear Earl Weaver's famous maxim in mind, the take-home message is that the conventional wisdom that a team's recent performances foreshadows their playoff fate is generally wrong.

No team wants to finish their season on a low note, heading into the playoffs, but the key is finding out if it actually matters. Admittedly, these Dodgers seem to have broken the norm.

Per Madison McEntire of SABR, no team in MLB history has ever won 100 games and lost 10 or more games in a row in the same year. The Dodgers have 94 wins with 16 games remaining, and already have an 11-game losing streak under their belt.

The Dodgers earlier this season also won 11 straight, and had a 10-game winning streak to boot. Again per McEntire, they are the first team in MLB history with two double-digit win streaks and a double-digit losing streak in the same season.

Seemingly no matter what the Dodgers do these final two-plus weeks of the regular season, they will be a historically unique team heading into the postseason.

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

“It’s easy to say that momentum does matter, and any team if they had their choice would they want that momentum? Absolutely,” manager Dave Roberts said in San Diego, back when the 11-game losing streak was in its infancy. “But every team if you see has had momentum how they fared going into the postseason, compared to teams that didn’t have it, the winning kind of balances itself out.”

Also back in 2009, I looked at all the playoff teams in the wild card era and found more of the same as Jaffe. That post only looked at the years 1995-2008, but this week I updated my research through 2016.

I looked at every playoff team of the last 22 years, and scrutinized these points in each series (or wild card game):

  • Overall seasonal record
  • Home field advantage
  • Record in last 10 games of regular season
  • Record in last 20 games of regular season
  • Record in last 30 games of regular season

I excluded the 1995-96 home field advantage numbers for the division series, because in the first two years of the format the team with the “advantage” would start the first two games on the road before finishing up with three at home.

In cases when the records were tied — the 2013 ALDS, for instance, featured the Tigers and Orioles, both of whom finished their regular seasons 13-7 — those were discarded for that category.

Division series

  • Teams with home field advantage won 42 of 80 division series (52.5%)
  • Teams with the better regular season record won 44 of 86 division series (51.2%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 10 games won 39 of 71 division series (54.9%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 20 games won 40 of 74 1st round series (54.1`%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 30 games won 42 of 77 1st round series (54.5%)

Nothing really stands out here, to me.

League championship series

  • Teams with home field advantage won 23 of 44 league championship series (52.3%)
  • Teams with the better regular season record won 24 of 43 league championship series (55.8%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 10 games won 17 of 30 league championship series (56.7%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 20 games won 21 of 39 league championship series (53.8%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 30 games won 18 of 39 league championship series (46.2%)

Wild card games

MLB introduced a wild card game in each league in 2012. Here are those results, with only five years of data:

  • Teams with home field advantage won 3 of 10 wild card games (30.0%)
  • Teams with the better regular season record won 2 of 6 wild card games (33.3%). *there were four games with tied records.
  • Teams with the better record in the final 10 games won 5 of 8 wild card games (62.5%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 20 games won 4 of 8 wild card games (50.0%)
  • Teams with the better record in the final 30 games won 4 of 8 wild card games (50.0%)

This seems like more of the same, with the caveat that true momentum is that day’s starting pitcher, which is more prevalent in a one-game “series.”

So while finishing the regular season strong might be good for the soul, there isn’t a ton of evidence that it provides much of an advantage come playoff time. I stand by my earlier thought: if you want to success in October, it’s better to play well in October than to play well in September.