The season rounds the first turn today, at least in the race as defined by the Notebook. We start off the first round of interleague play and everyone's had 6 1/2 weeks of games under their belt. It's fashionable--and accurate--to say "it's still early" when looking at a surprise leader or a disappointing presumed contender. But while it may be early, it's also possible that the body of work we have gives us enough to go on to safely write teams off or declare others pretty safe. In that light, I went through the last four years to see what the standings were on this day and find out what recent history has to teach us. Let's go year-by-year, looking for both late starters and midseason faders...
2006: The playoff teams were already in position or pretty close to it. The only notable fade was the Red Sox, leading
the AL East on this date, but falling to third after the Yankees hung a five-game sweep on them in Fenway. In other words, the standings on May 21, 2006 gave you a pretty good idea who was going to be playing in October.
2007: A little more fluid this year. The Phillies and Cubs were each 6.5 games back, but won division titles. The Yankees were 9.5 back in the AL East and seven out of the wild-card, but came back to make it close in the division and get into the postseason. Notable fade was Milwaukee, which led the Central at this point in the season.
2008: Another year where the eight playoff teams were right around the green, if I may borrow a golf analogy. No real collapses, although the Marlins & Braves were 1-2 in the NL East before giving away to eventual Series champ Philadelphia, even if the Phils were only a couple games out.
2009: The best comeback of this four-year period. Colorado was 16-24, twelve games back in the NL West and 7.5 out of the wild-card. They made the playoffs and were still chasing the Dodgers for first place on the last weekend. Minnesota was hanging on at this point, 5.5 back, but made a big September surge to steal the AL Central. Notable fades were Toronto & Milwaukee, both in first place at the time and non-factors in the stretch drive.
Using these four years and this particular date as a completely arbitrary barometer, the main thing that jumps out at me is that for the most part we have played enough games to have a reliable guess on who's going to be in the playoffs. The number of comebacks of deficits more than five games is not large. And one of them is the 2007 Yankees, a bad example, because most teams that play themselves into early holes don't have a $200 million roster of superstars waiting to
come out of it. The '09 Rockies are the symbol of hope, but for the most part that hope is illusionary.
But for surprise teams, the hope doesn't necessarily apply. A strong first six weeks hasn't proven a reliable indicator to say that an unexpected contender will be in the postseason. Milwaukee is the main proof of this, and I felt sympathy for my season-ticket holding couisins back in Brewtown. Clearly, they know what it means to have the rug cut out from under them. As applied to 2010, if you don't believe in San Diego, don't get on the bandwagon just yet.
So the history lesson is clear--look at the teams within five game or closer of the playoffs. I grant you that's a large pool including about 20 teams right now, but then take it a step further and figure it's probably teams you expected at the beginning of the year to be there (sorry Pittsburgh & Oakland). I won't say it's the most groundbreaking opinion I've ever come up with,
and truthfully it's depressingly dull. But it is reality. Expanding the postseason has created some great moments in October, but at the expense of some great races all summer long--i.e, what if the next four months were going to be the Rays & Yankees jousting at each other's throats every day, instead of just trying to keep the Red Sox at arm's length? But that's a topic for another time.
Enjoy the weekend festivities! My comments about the costs of expanding the postseason probably gave me away as a traditionalist, but I do love the rivalry showdowns in interleague play. This is one of the really fun weekends of the regular season. The Notebook will come back on Sunday night with All-Star picks for each league.