We’re well into the final month of the regular season and some teams heading toward the playoffs — the Royals and Astros, for example — are limping a bit. They still hold division leads and are bound for the postseason barring a terrible collapse, but recent play doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence.
Conversely, you have the Mets and the Dodgers, who have surged in September, taking what were close races and turning them into nearly insurmountable division leads.
But how much does September really matter? No team wants to lose, of course, and they certainly have to play well enough to get into the playoffs. But if the postseason is a forgone conclusion, does it make a difference if a team is riding a wave of momentum to the playoffs?
There’s not really a conclusive answer, but reason history suggests a team is much better off playing well down the stretch if they want to go all the way in the playoffs. None of the past five World Series champions have had a losing record in September. In fact, most have been as dominant in the final month as they were the rest of the regular season.
The worst of the group, though, was last year’s San Francisco Giants. Bruce Bochy’s squad went 88-74 in the regular season and just barely squeaked into the playoffs, securing a wild card spot after going 13-12 in September. Of course, we all remember Pablo Sandoval and Madison Bumgarner leading the Giants through the playoffs all they way to a World Series Game 7 victory at Kansas City (which enjoyed a September surge last year to make the playoffs).
But each of the other World Series champions since 2010 were more dominant during the regular season and through September. The 2013 Red Sox finished 97-65 and went 16-9 in September.
The Giants of 2012 and 2010 were equally impressive all the way to the end of the regular season. In 2012, San Francisco finished 94-68 and went 19-8 in September. Two years earlier, when their mini-dynasty began, the Giants finished 92-70 and went 18-8 in September.
The 2011 Cardinals, who finished 90-72 overall, also went 18-8 in the final month to secure their spot in the playoffs.
It’s certainly not a definitive trend, but it is interesting when trying to predict how the 2015 postseason will go. It might be hard to pick against a team such as the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have the National League’s two best pitchers at the front of their rotation and have won eight of the last 10 games.
But what to think about the American League, where none of the division leaders, nor the wild card-leading Yankees, are exactly blowing opponents out of the water this month. The Blue Jays have been a popular pick since the start of August, but are just 6-4 in their last 10. But that’s significantly better than the Royals, who just went 1-5 in a home stand and are 3-7 in their past 10 games heading into a series in Baltimore. In the American League West, the Astros are clinging to a 2.5-game lead over the Rangers, but can’t seem to pull away.
Everyone has some time to get it together and move into the postseason on a hot streak, but right now it looks like too many teams, particularly in the American League, are simply coasting toward the finish line.
It’s easy to understand. The Royals have essentially had the division wrapped up for weeks and even after losing two of three to the second-place Twins, their lead on Minnesota is still 11 games. The sense of urgency just isn’t there.
But perhaps Kansas City needs to start playing like the race is tighter than it is, because a lackadaisical entrance into the playoffs doesn’t seem like the best way to go about winning it all.