It’s Early Yet … Or Is It?

Each year, as the MLB regular season begins, analysts and managers alike caution fans to avoid taking their team’s early results too seriously. They’ll tell us, “We haven’t played that well, but it’s only April … championships aren’t won it April.” Or, they’ll say, “We’ve started well, yeah, but we won’t know anything about this team until June.”

Does that actually make sense? There are a lot of different ways to approach that question, of course, but in order to get at part of it I asked myself the following two questions:

  1. Do teams that start quickly generally make the playoffs?
  2. Conversely, do teams that start poorly generally fail to make the playoffs?

Let’s start by examining the data set. Over the past ten seasons, there have been 88 teams who made the playoffs (including teams who participated in the one game play-in for Wild Card winners). Of those 88 teams, 79.5 percent (70 teams) had a .500 or better winning percentage at the end of play on April 30.

Now, “nearly 80 percent” is a big number (although—sidebar!—it’s kind of amazing that over 20 percent of playoff teams were below .500 on April 30th), and it makes some intuitive sense. Starting well means you have to win fewer games later to reach the playoffs.

But we’re sort looking at this backwards. Of course most eventual playoff teams have winning records at the end of April. That doesn’t tell us anything about whether having a winning record at the end of April—which is, of course, all we know at the end of April, is linked with a playoff berth. So let’s turn this around the other way, and specify our Question 1, above: how do .500 teams on April 30th fare at season’s end?

The results here are interesting—over the past ten seasons, there have been 158 teams who ended April with a winning percentage of .500 or higher. With 70 of those teams later making the playoffs (as discussed above), that leaves 88 teams who finished April with a .500 winning percentage or better and yet did not make the playoffs. Pausing for a moment on the peculiarity of having exactly the same number of total playoff teams (88), as there were teams who ended April with a winning record but did not make the playoffs, I dismiss this as a fluke. The point is that having a winning record early in the season does not, in itself, correspond with a greatly increased chance of that team making the playoffs.

Now let’s look at Question 2. Over the same span of time (ten seasons) there were only 18 teams out of 88 who made the playoffs after ending April with a losing record. This fact, paired with its sibling above, is certainly suggestive. To put it another way, over the past ten seasons, 44.3 percent of teams who played winning baseball prior to May 1 wound up earning a trip to the playoffs in that season. Comparatively, only 12.7 percent of teams who finished April with a winning percentage below .500 turned it around and made the playoffs.

Digging further, of the 18 teams in the last ten seasons who were below .500 on May 1st, but managed to eventually make the playoffs, ten of them had “righted the ship” in May and entered June with a winning record for the season. Fully 90.9 percent of the teams who have made the playoffs over the past ten seasons had winning percentages of .500 or better on June 1st.

And the eight teams who were able to make the playoffs despite having losing records on June 1st? In six out of eight cases, the team in question managed to string together remarkable runs of winning at a minimum .622 clip for a minimum of two months. In three of those eight cases, the team needed to win at a minimum .663 clip for three full months of the season to make the playoffs. Only twice (2014 Pirates and 2007 Cubs) were such teams able to play the rest of the season at below .600 winning percentage and still make the playoffs.

And then there’s this:

No team in the past 10 seasons, and only one team in the past 20 seasons, has won the World Series after having a losing record on May 1st.

So what have we learned? In short, that having a winning record at the end of April is nice, but hardly guarantees you a playoff spot. On the other hand, having a losing record at the end of April? That’s probably bad news for a team’s chances. We will all know plenty about our teams at the end of April, and even more at the end of May. Whether we accept their fates at that point is up to the individual, but that’s the data.

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.

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2 comments on “It’s Early Yet … Or Is It?”


Great. now I have to run a monte carlo simulation…


So you can’t win it in April, but you can definitely lose it.

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