The Twins are toast and the baseball season in Chicago is virtually over. Harsh as that may sound before summer has even arrived, history tells us nothing short of historic comebacks can save the seasons of the Twins, Cubs and White Sox.
People like to talk about the integrity of 162 games in determining the quality of teams. Folks, you don't need nearly that many games to separate the good teams from the bad ones. The late Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson said it took about two months to identify the contenders and the pretenders. Anderson came to such an observation without benefit of research and before the six-division format and wild cards. Well, guess what: Sparky knew what he was talking about. Sparky's Law still works.
Even with wild cards, and despite the life ring of rare outliers such as the 2005 Astros to cling to, teams that are bad for the first two months of the season almost never make the playoffs. So with June arriving tomorrow, now is the perfect time to cast aside all the blather about waiting for a trade or guys coming back from injuries or the weather warming up and stick to the facts about the near impossibility of bad teams mounting some historically great charge to the postseason.
I looked at where every team stood in the standings through May 31 in the 15 full seasons with the wild card format (1996-2010). I checked the closest they were to any playoff spot, whether it was the division title or the wild card. Here are the facts:
• Of the 143 teams that began June at least five games under .500, 136 didn't make the playoffs -- a 95.1 percent failure rate.
• Of the 184 teams at least five games out of any playoff spot, 174 didn't make the playoffs -- a 94.6 percent failure rate.
• Of the 126 teams both at least five games under and five games out, 121 didn't make the playoffs, a 96.0 failure rate.
• Coming back from two bad months in the AL in particular -- where the Yankees and Red Sox set high wild-card bars - is virtually impossible. Only one AL team in the wild card era began June more than five games under .500 and wound up in the playoffs: the 2007 Yankees (22-29 on May 31).
Now you understand why the Twins are done. At 17-35, they are 18 games under .500 and 12 games out of a playoff spot. They are an abysmal offensive team -- worse than the 1962 Mets at this point and a challenge to the 2010 Mariners as one of the most inept hitting teams ever with use of the DH. They have the worst bullpen ERA in the league. Any personnel move Minnesota makes this summer should be done to improve the 2012 team, not this one. With huge advance ticket sales, Minnesota will have a hard time selling this reality to its fans.
The situation in Chicago is only slightly less bleak. The White Sox are 6 games under .500 and 6 games out of the wild card. (The 2007 Yankees are the only AL team in the past 15 years to recover from that kind of deficit at the start of June to make the postseason.) The White Sox are woefully below average offensively at DH, third base, second base, centerfield, leftfield and catcher. They are the worst defensive team in the league, as ranked by defensive efficiency. Their bullpen is 10th in the league.
The Cubs are so bad that they have played a third of their schedule without ever winning three games in a row. They are 6 games under and 7 games out of the wild card. They have little speed, they don't take walks, their pitching is atrocious and they are next-to-last in the league in defensive efficiency. This sums up their ineptitude: They have taken the fewest walks in the league while giving the most, resulting in a net deficit of 71 walks in 52 games.
Could it be just three years ago that Chicago hosted four postseason games in two ballparks over a six-day span? When the White Sox and Cubs reached the 2008 postseason, it was the first time since they played each other in the 1906 World Series that Chicago put two teams in the same postseason. Alas, the White Sox and Cubs both lost in their respective League Division Series in 2008, and there has not been a postseason game in Chicago since. This could mark the first time since 1995-97 that Chicago sits out the playoffs in three straight years.
The Twins, White Sox and Cubs have some company in seeing their postseason chances to dwindle to next to nothing before May is over. Though none qualifies as a surprise pretender, the other members of the 5-and-5 Club (five games under, five games out) are:
So go ahead if you wish and believe your club is not like 95 percent of the slow-starting teams of the past 15 years. To help you keep such faith through the summer, here are the only four teams of the wild card era who made the playoffs after starting June more than five games worse than .500:
2005 Astros (19-32): This is the only playoff team in the wild card era to start June more than nine games out of a playoff spot. That's a 1-in-120 shot.
Buried in May, the Astros wound up in the World Series, the ultimate example of why the wild card format needs fixing with a wild-card play-in game. The Astros did not play a meaningful game in the NL Central for the last five months, yet played half of their 14 postseason games at home. This was a poor offensive team, but their top three starters (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt) didn't miss a start.
2009 Rockies (20-29): This team and the 2003 Marlins are reminders why teams change managers mid-season. One week after replacing manager Clint Hurdle with Jim Tracy, Colorado ran off 17 wins in 18 games to get back in the race.
2007 Yankees (22-29): The Yankees actually went into the season with Kei Igawa in their rotation. They used 11 starting pitchers in just their first 42 games: Carl Pavano, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Kei Igawa, Darrell Rasner, Chase Wright, Chien Ming Wang, Phil Hughes, Jeff Karstens, Matt DeSalvo and Tyler Clippard. But boy, could they hit. They mashed out 968 runs and stormed back to win the wild card.
2007 Cubs (22-29): Under new manager Lou Piniella, the Cubs started poorly. Then one day on Memorial Day weekend, pitcher Carlos Zambrano scuffled in the dugout with his catcher, Michael Barrett, and the next day Piniella let loose with one of his all-time best meltdowns arguing a call at third base. The Cubs played better after that, but let's be honest here: the division stunk. Chicago claimed the NL Central title despite winning only 85 games -- just fifth most in the league.