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Why September comebacks are few and far between in MLB

Why September comebacks are few and far between in MLB Photo:

Baseball becomes a different game in September, and not just because we get the idiocy of 17-man bullpens and two teams playing with different sized rosters. The cliché that the baseball season is a marathon is expressly prohibited under little-known official rule 3.19. The leisurely pace of the season yields to anxious urgency when Sept. 1 arrives. "Must-win game" becomes part of the baseball vernacular.

Nothing in sport can bind your attention like a month-long pennant race. It's like Election Night times 30, with optimism and despair visiting irregularly depending on the latest precinct results from near and far.

The wild card — one in each league added in 1995 and then a second in 2012 — only heightened the hope that your favorite team is just a hot series or two away from a playoff run. The Yankees, winners of five in a row, are drinking from that well now. The strength of such hope as August nears its end made me wonder: Just how often do teams come from behind in September to steal a playoff spot? The answer further convinced me that, the more we know about baseball as a game of percentages, the more we celebrate its statistical fringes.

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In 19 years of wild card play, 156 teams have made the playoffs. Only 25 of them began September out of playoff position, or just about one per year. Here’s the inverse: 84 percent of teams holding playoff positions on Sept. 1 finish the season in playoff position.

Ah, but we tune in each night for the 16 percent, don’t we? And while we remember the Cardinals and Rays of 2011 and the Mariners of 1995 — the patron saint teams of the big September comeback — the truth is that even making up one game per week in September is a monumental task.

First let’s consider the ones we do remember. Here are the biggest deficits on Sept. 1 for any playoff team in the wild card era:

team Games back
2011 Cardinals 8 1/2
2011 Rays 7 1/2
1995 Mariners 7 1/2
2007 Rockies 5
2013 Indians 4 1/2
2010 Giants 4

That’s it. Six teams in 19 years have made up four games or more in September. How did they do it? Here are the quick narratives:

2011 Cardinals: The "Happy Flight" world champions. The title would not have been possible without the collapse of the Braves. Gassed from too many close and extra-inning games, Atlanta lost its last five games while scoring just seven runs.

2011 Rays: A franchise record-setting 22 losses in September by the Red Sox, against only seven wins, provided Tampa Bay the opening. Like St. Louis, the Rays completed the comeback on the Night of 162, the greatest night of mass excitement in baseball history.

1995 Mariners: The "Refuse to Lose" Mariners actually lost their final two games, then beat the Angels in a tiebreaker game for the first postseason berth in franchise history.

2007 Rockies: The definition of a hot team. Over a 29-day period, including a tiebreaker game and the first two rounds of the playoffs, Colorado lost one game (21-1). Then, sufficiently cooled by eight days off, they were swept in the World Series by Boston.

2013 Indians: They finished 10-0 — against three teams that combined for 306 losses. When they finally saw a decent team, they lost to Tampa Bay in the wild card game, 4-0.

2010 Giants: They wiped out a four-game deficit on first-place San Diego in just the first 10 games of the month, played decently thereafter (12-8) and went on to win the World Series.

TAYLER: Loss of Choo is latest blow to injury-wracked Rangers

What lessons can we learn from 19 Septembers that we can apply to the next one? Try these on for size:

1. Keep the deficit at one game per week remaining.

Let the six teams mentioned above stand as your outliers; they represent only 3.8 percent of the 156 playoff teams in the wild card era.

Even 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot on Sept. 1 is a mountain. Only 14 teams in 19 years made the postseason after starting the month more than two games out. That’s why the Indians, Blue Jays, Marlins and Reds are running out of time to make a move.

Even better, try to make sure you are part of the 84 Percent Group when we get to Sept. 1. If the standings hold for another six days, the 10 teams in playoff position would be the Orioles, Royals, Angels, Athletics, Mariners, Nationals, Brewers, Dodgers, Cardinals and Giants — a grouping that would give us:

  • Half the playoff field from the West Coast.
  • The first postseason of outgoing commissioner Bud Selig’s tenure without the Yankees and Red Sox.
  • Four of the five biggest payrolls in baseball at home for October (Yankees, Phillies, Tigers, Red Sox).

2. You better have a veteran manager.

I found this very interesting when I looked at the 14 teams who came back from a deficit of more than two games: No team has come back like that in September with a manager with less than five years of experience. That’s good news for the Yankees (Joe Girardi), Pirates (Clint Hurdle) and Braves (Fredi Gonzalez), and bad news for the Marlins (Mike Redmond) and Reds (Bryan Price).

Maybe, despite front office trends lately, experience in the dugout does matter. Check out the best 14 September comeback teams and notice how the list of their managers includes many of the most iconic names of this era:

team games back manager years managing
2011 Cardinals 8 1/2 Tony La Russa 35
2011 Rays 7 1/2 Joe Maddon 8
1995 Mariners 7 1/2 Lou Piniella 9
2007 Rockies 5 Clint Hurdle 6
2013 Indians 4 1/2 Terry Francona 13
2010 Giants 4 Bruce Bochy 16
2009 Twins 3 1/2 Ron Gardenhire 8
2004 Astros 3 Phil Garner 12
2004 Angels 3 Mike Scioscia 5
2008 Dodgers 2 1/2 Joe Torre 28
2003 Cubs 2 1/2 Dusty Baker 11
1998 Rangers 2 1/2 Johnny Oates 8
1997 Giants 2 1/2 Dusty Baker 5
1996 Cardinals 2 1/2 Tony La Russa 20

3. Despite conventional wisdom and the legend of the 2007 Rockies, the hottest teams going into the postseason are not the most dangerous teams in the postseason.

It’s been proven before, but it’s worth repeating: How teams get into the postseason — hot, cold, lukewarm, coasting, grinding, etc. — is a poor predictor of how they fare in October. The postseason, with its pressure, extra days off, shortened rotations, smaller-than-September rosters, odd start times, etc., is played under different rules of engagement than the last month of the regular season.

CORCORAN: Does Machado's season-ending injury sink Orioles for playoffs?

Here’s one way to debunk the "hot-team-going-into-the playoffs" conventional wisdom. Since the wild card was first used in 1995, 27 teams have played .700 baseball or better in September. (The month also includes regular season games played in October.) Those teams went 12-20 in postseason series. None of them won the World Series.

Here are the seven greatest September teams of the wild card era, and how they fared in the postseason. (Teams that came from behind in September are denoted with an asterisk.)

team sept. Win Percentage postseason series
2001 Athletics .852 (23-4) 0-1
1995 Yankees* .786 (22-6) 0-1
2013 Indians* .778 (21-6) 0-1
2002 Cardinals .778 (21-6) 1-1
2011 Tigers .769 (20-6) 1-1
2004 Astros* .767 (23-7) 1-1
2010 Phillies .767 (23-7) 1-1

Is there another outlier in this year's crowd? Maybe it’s the Yankees. They have a negative run differential and never been more than seven games better than .500 all year. But they have a different roster (Martin Prado, Stephen Drew, Brandon McCarthy, Chris Capuano, etc.) than they had for most of the season. They are 5-0 in the 25-13 finish (.658) needed to get them to 88 wins.

The Marlins, despite a second-year manager, are dangerous, too, with MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton and the best record in baseball in one-run games (32-20) giving their season the air of good fortune.

We shouldn’t expect teams to come storming from behind, but every September we do. It’s the nature of the pennant race. Baseball is distilled to a 30-game season, a sprint. We always want to be the first to see the horse from the outside making its move at the top of the stretch. Every night our nerves rise and fall like the stock market. October may be baseball’s best month, but September is the next best thing. The fun officially begins Monday.

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