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Limping Into the Playoffs: Does Momentum Matter?

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I'm still working with the more than reasonable assumption that the Phillies are going to be in the playoffs.  Once we get into the playoffs though, does it matter that we might wind up limping across the finish line?  After all, the Phillies are 4-6 in their last ten games (after winning 9 of 11, which seems like decades ago) and show no signs of improving, especially considering they're playing the Astros for the next three games, a team that has dominated the Phillies for the last several years.

So does momentum going into the playoffs matter?

To get a sense of the answer to that question, I've looked at the last five post-seasons.  I've tallied each post-season team's record for the last 7 and last 21 games of the season.

First, here are the best teams in the last 7 games of the season over the last five years and that team's results in the playoffs:

Year Team Record Result
2004 Astros 7-0 Lost NLCS
2005 Angels 6-1 Lost ALCS
2006 Dodgers 7-0 Lost NLDS
2007 Rockies 6-1 Lost World Series
2008 Brewers 6-1 Lost NLDS

Only one of the teams with the best record over the last 7 games made it to the World Series. Two didn't make it out of the first round, and the other two exited in the second round. Positive momentum sure didn't seem to help these teams.

What about struggling over the last 7 games? Here's the chart of the worst teams over the last 7 games (with three tied in 2008):

Year Team Record Result
2004 Cardinals 2-5 Lost World Series
2005 Braves 2-5 Lost NLDS
2006 Tigers 2-5 Lost World Series
2007 Diamondbacks 2-5 Lost NLCS
2008 Dodgers 3-4 Lost NLCS
2008 Cubs 3-4 Lost NLDS
2008 Angels 3-4 Lost ALDS

These teams did only marginally better as two got to the World Series, although neither won. All in all, the best and the worst teams over the last 7 games of the season seemed to have no real difference in post-season results.

What about expanding the timeframe to see if momentum can be built up over a longer period? Here's the chart of the best teams over the last 21 games of the season for each of the last five years. Again, there's a tie in 2008:

Year Team Record Result
2004 Astros 15-6 Lost NLCS
2005 Yankees 16-5 Lost ALDS
2006 Padres 15-6 Lost NLDS
2007 Rockies 16-5 Lost World Series
2008 Phillies 15-6 Won World Series
2008 Angels 15-6 Lost ALDS

Thanks to last year's Phillies, there's some more success here, as two of these teams went to the World Series, and the Phillies won it in 2008. But, the 2008 Angels, with the same 21-game momentum as the Phillies, exited in the first round, as did the 2005 Yankees and 2006 Padres. Having the best 21-game record is no guarantee of success.

On the flipside, the worst 21-game record might be some indicator of a problem. Here's the chart for these teams (again with a tie in 2008):

Year Team Record Result
2004 Dodgers 10-11 Lost NLDS
2005 Braves 9-12 Lost NLDS
2006 Cardinals 8-13 Won World Series
2007 Angels 10-11 Lost ALDS
2008 Brewers 9-12 Lost NLDS
2008 White Sox 9-12 Lost ALDS

Here, with one big exception, we see a pattern. Five of these six worst teams didn't make it out of the first round. However, the 2006 Cardinals throw a big monkey wrench in this pattern, as they had a horrible 8-13 record over their last 21 games but managed to win the World Series.

Of course, this is a very limited sample size, as it's only 5 years of data. But, it does show that momentum does not guarantee a successful post-season run. And, it also shows that struggling to finish the season is no absolute bar to going deep into the post-season, even winning the World Series.