What a 10-1 stretch means in modern baseball



Let me apologize up front for the now outdated information that spawned this post, but I think it tells a worthwhile story, nonetheless. As you might be aware, the Mets got off to a blazing 10-1 start this season (as I type this, they now sit at 12-3), and last Thursday Jayson Stark noted on Twitter that three of the last five teams to start the season 10-1 actually missed the playoffs ('02 Indians, '03 Royals, '09 Marlins). In response, b_g_h, the former Viva El Birdos site manager, wondered how often teams with a 10-1 stretch at any point during the season went on to make the postseason


These sort of questions and trends interest me as well, so using Baseball Reference's Play Index, I took a look at 1995-2017, as that covers the playoff expansion time period, and found some interesting results.


But first, a quick explanation of the rather simple methodology here. As noted, I used the Play Index to search for all 10-1 stretches since 1995, but, to my knowledge, there's no direct way on the Play Index to cross-reference that information with teams that made the postseason. That had to be done manually in a separate tab. I checked it twice and I trust the numbers, but it would also not surprise me if somehow I missed one here or there. Still, as can be seen below, the sample is large enough that if a mistake or two were made, it would not alter the results all that much. 


Second, again, the numbers below account for all teams between 1995 and 2017 that had at least one 10-1 stretch during a season. Now, a team like the 1998 Yankees had multiple 10-1 stretches, some overlapping with each other, whereas the 2013 Washington Nationals, for example, only had one. However, each team was only counted once even though multiple 10-1 stretches during a season likely means a higher probability to make the postseason as compared to just one. More simply, the numbers are not weighted.


Anyway, if you're still with me, here's what I found:


Between 1995 and 2017, there were 240 teams with at least one 10-1 stretch during a season and 107 (45 percent) went on to miss the playoffs. (Or, to answer b_g_h's question more directly, approximately 55 percent made the postseason.) In graph form, year-by-year, it looks like this.

The most atypical year might be 2003 when 14 teams had a 10-1 stretch and nine missed out on the playoffs. And I don't know what happened between 2001 and 2004, but there was an uptick in teams winning ten of eleven, reaching a peak in 2004 when 15 of the 30 teams pulled this off.


As you can see around 2012, when they added the second wild card, the percentage of teams that missed the playoffs decreased which sounds right since that extra wild card means an easier path to extra baseball. To put an exact number on it, from 2012 to the present, there have been 59 teams with at least one 10-1 stretch in a season and 21 (36 percent) of them missed out on the postseason. Whereas from 1995 to 2011, almost half (48 percent) of the teams with a 10-1 stretch stayed home in October.


How does this relate to the Cardinals since this is, after all, a Cardinals blog? It doesn't really but for the fact that the Cardinals have surprisingly very few 10-1 stretches since 1995. And I say "surprisingly" because they have been the second best team in Major League Baseball by my calculations during the Wild Card era


But even in their mad dash to make the playoffs in 2011, the Cardinals didn't rattle off ten of eleven. Nor did they in 2012 when they won 88 games. Same with 2013, when they tied for the best record in baseball (97-65) with the Red Sox. (The Red Sox didn't have a 10-1 stretch that season either.) How about 2014 when they again won the division? Nope. Finally, 2015, when the Cardinals won 100 games, they were, in fact, one of six teams with a 10-1 stretch, and they did it exactly once from April 28, 2015, to May 8, 2015. In total, just six Cardinals teams (1996, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2015) have had at least one 10-1 stretch during a season since 1995.


My gut reaction was to find this almost remarkable. The Cardinals were the best team in baseball from 2011 to 2015 by almost 20 wins and out a total of 69 teams with a 10-1 stretch during that time, they did it only once. But consider it for a second or two and it makes sense, right? Those Cardinals teams, especially the first four years of the Mike Matheny era, were always more methodical than streaky. Between 2012 and 2016, the Cardinals went four years without a losing record during a calendar month, but that wasn't built on the back of abnormally long winning streaks. They outlasted teams; they didn't sprint by them. 


If there's a lesson here, I guess it's that 162 games is a lot! Even bad teams can get really hot for a few weeks. And Stark is correct. Starting off the season on a significant winning streak or mixing one in during the middle of the season guarantees nothing. On the other hand, if you are one of the lucky teams to win ten of eleven, you have a better than 50 percent chance of making the postseason, so say the stats since 1995 anyway.


When I think of this I go back to the Mets. The 2015 Mets. They weren't projected to be much more than a middling baseball team, but they started 13-3 out of the gate. They went a good but hardly great 77-69 the rest of the way, which was much closer to their initial projections, and that proved enough to win the NL East (they had help from an imploding Nationals squad, too). And it almost proved enough to win the entire thing. They lost to the Royals in the World Series in five games, but they're likely not even in that position without those first 16 games. So a great start, or a long winning streak during a season doesn't guarantee anything, but it certainly doesn't hurt either. 


Photo credit: Jeff Niehaus