By the end of Monday, the average major league team will have played 50 games. Given that as well as the fact that Memorial Day marks something of a milepost for the season, it's worth looking back at the history of the wild-card era to examine the likelihood of slow starters such as the Dodgers, Angels and Blue Jays digging out of their holes to make the postseason, and of more surprising ones such as the Pirates and Red Sox holding on to postseason berths.
Since the advent of the wild-card system in 1995, a total of 146 teams have made the postseason, eight per year up until last year, when an additional pair of wild cards was added to create a one-game playoff game. Ignoring the actual identities of the teams, here's what the historical distribution of win totals through 50 games looks like, with the number and percentage of teams making the playoffs for each one:
The distribution isn't perfect, but the trends are apparent; you can literally count on one hand the teams with 21 or fewer wins at the 50-game mark who have rallied to make the playoffs: the 2005 Astros (18-32), 2009 Rockies (20-30), 1995 Yankees (21-29), 2003 Marlins (21-29), and 2007 Yankees (21-29). Even up through 25 wins — a .500 record — the chances are quite slim. Fewer than half the teams with 28 wins make the postseason. Aggregating these into meaningful clusters for more clarity:
Beyond the worst of the worst, nothing is set in stone; even a couple of very slow-starting teams recovered, while some who appeared to be running away from the pack were eventually run over. So what does that mean for the current landscape? Obviously, neither the Marlins (13-37) nor the Astros (14-36) are going anywhere, and while they're not quite to 50 games at this writing, it's reasonably safe to rule out the Mets (18-29), Cubs (19-30), Brewers (19-29) and Twins (19-28), none of whom extrapolate to having more than 20 wins through the 50 game mark based on their current winning percentages.
CANNELLA: Surprises and disappointments from early going
It's the next cluster of teams that's of particular interest, for they include several teams that harbored big hopes coming into the year: the Dodgers (20-28), Blue Jays (21-29), Mariners (21-29), Royals (21-26), Padres (22-27), Angels (23-27) and Phillies (24-26). The Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels have ranked among the game's biggest disappointments so far, with the job security of managers Don Mattingly and Mike Scioscia under scrutiny for the past few weeks. Mattingly has survived the most recent round of speculation with a vote of confidence from upper management if not improved play, while Scioscia appears secure; the Angels are is currently riding an eight-game winning streak and will get Jered Weaver back this week, so they may yet climb off the mat.
Meanwhile, the modest offseason retooling efforts of the Mariners, Royals and Phillies don't appear to have gained much traction. While you won't hear any of the players, managers or general managers from those teams conceding that they're in "Wait Til Next Year" territory yet, history suggests that those with 21 to 24 wins at the 50-game mark have only a 10 percent shot at rebounding from such inauspicious beginnings. Given the number currently in this category, it wouldn't be a huge surprise if one broke through this year, which means a lot of unhappy campers.
The odds start to improve significantly for the next cluster of teams, the ones that could wind up in the 25-28 win tier at the 50-game mark: the White Sox (24-24), Rays (25-24), Nationals (26-24), Rockies (27-23), Orioles (27-23), A's (28-23), Indians (27-22), Giants (28-22), Diamondbacks (28-22) and Tigers (28-20). Even so, only around 30 percent of such teams make the playoffs, so we could expect around three from that crop. The Tigers, with two games in hand, might actually belong in the next tier.
Not counting Detroit, that leaves seven teams, of which only the Cardinals (32-17) have a shot at the 33+ win tier of near-certainty. The Red Sox (31-20), Yankees (30-19), Braves (30-19), Pirates (31-19), Reds (31-19) and Rangers (32-18) are sitting relatively pretty, with around a 60 percent shot at the playoffs; we should expect around four from this group to make it. That's rather good news for the Red Sox, who have rebounded from last year's 69-win aberration more strongly than expected, and the Pirates, who are showing strong signs of shedding their 20-year streak of futility.
Admittedly, this is inexact science, with no accounting for run differentials — which are more predictive of future performance than current won-loss records — strength of schedule or injuries. For that level of sophistication, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report is a superior tool. The report uses a Monte Carlo simulation to account for all of those aforementioned factors, including the PECOTA projections and expected distribution of playing time on the roster, so it still harbors more hope for a squad of proven players like the Dodgers (whose projected remaining winning percentage is .540) than the Rockies (for whom the figure is just .481) despite the discrepancy of their current record; overall, both teams project to finish with 81 wins.
According to the report, 10 teams have chances of playing in October that are lower than 4.0 percent: the Royals, Padres, Mariners, Blue Jays, Cubs, Mets, Brewers, Twins, Marlins and Astros (big shocker on the last two, right?). Another three teams have less than a 20.0 percent chance: the Phillies, White Sox and Orioles (15.0 percent, something of a surprise given that they're four games over .500). The Rockies, Dodgers, Angels and Rays range from 20.0 to 32.3 percent; to borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra, it's getting late early for those teams. The A's, Indians, Nationals and Giants are between 38.4 to 44.4 percent, a range where positive surprises are starting to cross paths with more heavily favored contenders. The Diamondbacks, Pirates and Red Sox range between 51.9 percent and 66.9 percent, where things are starting to look particularly positive. The other six teams — the Yankees, Braves, Cardinals, Reds, Rangers and Tigers — all have at least an 80.0 percent chance at making the playoffs via that methodology, with the Tigers topping the majors at 91.1 percent.