Four Contenders Are on the Cusp of April Doomsday. Should They Be Concerned?

The Yankees, Twins, Braves and Nationals are all having bad starts to the year. Are these four expected contenders already in jeopardy of missing the playoffs?
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The Twins are in danger of playing themselves out of the playoffs in April. Among other expected contenders, the Yankees, Braves and Nationals are flirting with a doomsday April.

Go ahead and tell yourself this is a long season. Remind yourself how the 2001 A’s (8–17) and the 2015 Rangers (7–14) recovered from terrible Aprils to make the postseason.

But know this: By doing so you would be banking on the exception, not the rule. Twins fans should know that 81 teams have played .350 baseball or worse in April since the wild-card format began in 1995. The 2001 A’s and 2015 Rangers are the only teams out of those 81 slow starters to make the postseason. The Twins start this week at .350 (7–13).

Acuna Sad 2

Here is the rule: It is entirely possible to lose a pennant in April. It happens all the time. Even the Yankees (.429), Braves (.429) and Nationals (.421) are on the cusp of trouble this month. In the past 10 full seasons, only six teams survived an April as bad as .429 and made the playoffs. Do you really think four teams can do it in one year?

What about the 2019 Nationals? Aren’t they the patron saints of the “Long Season”? Sure, but again you’re talking about an extreme outlier. Washington played .429 baseball in April (12-16) and still won the World Series.

The truth is that the odds become overwhelming as you fall further below .500 in April. Here are the historical facts as they regard teams with at least 15 April games:

• Teams that played less than .425 baseball in April made the playoffs only 5% of the time (35 of 750).

• Even if you begin with 1995, the start of the wild-card era, 93% of teams that played worse than .425 in April didn’t make the playoffs.

• Over the past 40 seasons, none of the 305 teams that played worse than .425 ball in April won the World Series. That’s 0-for-305 for those of you scoring at home. The last team to recover from such a slow start and win the championship was the 1980 Phillies (6–9).

Enough about the long term. Let’s take a snapshot of why these four should-be contenders are teetering on the brink of trouble. Included are the teams’ odds of reaching the postseason entering Monday, as calculated by Baseball-Reference.

Twins (21%): The good news is that the Twins are hitting the ball hard (43.3% hard-hit rate, best in the majors) with little to show for it. And hitting should not be a problem. Their schedule has been sporadic because of weather and COVID-19 issues. They had one 16-day stretch with six off days. Rhythm and better weather should foster better offense. The bullpen (1–7, 4.57) looms as a greater possible longer-term problem than the hitting.

Nationals (33%): Reclamation projects Josh Bell (.119 batting average) and Kyle Schwarber (.192) are no better. Stephen Strasburg and Juan Soto are hurt. The rotation is 4-9 with a 5.21 ERA. The defense has overperformed. If Soto has any lingering effects from his sore shoulder, this team will be in trouble.

Braves (54%): In one of the feeblest days of hitting in the game’s history, Atlanta managed one hit and no runs in a doubleheader loss to Arizona on Sunday while seeing only two pitches above 94 mph—none over 95. Every hitter except Ronald Acuña Jr. is struggling—this from a team that last year was second in scoring in the majors. Pitchers Max Fried, Mike Soroka, Sean Newcombe and Chris Martin are on the IL, but pitching injuries just come with the landscape in today’s game. The division isn’t nearly as tough as many have made it out to be, so Atlanta should be O.K. in the long run.

Gary Sanchez

Yankees (65%): They are built to win one way: hit home runs (mostly off fastballs), which makes them very dull when they don’t. They are hitting .206, they have no triples, bunt hits or sacrifice flies, they are last in the majors with only four stolen base attempts, and they are a bottom-10 defensive team.

Over the previous three seasons, the Yankees hit at least 20% more homers off fastballs than every other team in the league. Opponents have noticed. New York this year is seeing the lowest percentage of fastballs in the seven-year tracking history of Statcast: 44%. The Yankees had a good weekend in Cleveland. Why? They hit 10 home runs, eight of them off fastballs. Their track record says they will hit home runs, especially as the weather warms, which should mean they should be O.K., if not exactly thrilling.

Enough about the bad news. Nobody wants to lose hope for their team after only one month of baseball. So here’s the good news: Outliers do happen. Your slow starter could be the next team to beat the odds. In that spirit of such hope, here are the best comebacks from bad Aprils (minimum 15 games in the month):

The Biggest Comeback*: 1951 Giants

New York struggled through a 3–12 April (.200), the worst start for an eventual playoff team. They infamously cheated to overtake Brooklyn for the NL pennant. Manager Leo Durocher held a clubhouse meeting on July 19, 1951, in which the staff and players first broached the idea of a sign-stealing scheme from the windows of their centerfield clubhouse at the Polo Grounds. After that, the Giants went 24–6 at home.

The Biggest Comeback (no *): 2001 A’s

Oakland posted an 8–17 April (.320) on its way to a 11–20 start. It roared to a 91–40 record the rest of the way to grab a wild-card spot with 102 wins. The Straight A’s ran off streaks of five or more wins eight times. How did they pull it off? Historically great starting pitching.

Just three pitchers, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, started 64% of the team’s games and chewed up 46% of its innings. Each of the three young guns started at least 34 times and won at least 17 games. It was the 35th time in history three pitchers on the same staff carried such a load—and the last time. You won’t see that happen again.

LAWS: The Oakland A's Are Playing Modern Moneyball

The Most Unlikely Champions: 1979 Pirates

Just 11 games into the season, Pittsburgh made a rare April trade when it moved shortstop Frank Tavares to the Mets for shortstop Tim Foli. Tavares had made three errors after committing 38 the previous season, incurring the wrath of Pirates fans. Manager Chuck Tanner was convinced the Pirates needed to stabilize the position and Tavares needed a change of scenery. “Every time he made a mistake, everybody was all over him,” Tanner said.

Foli provided the steady defense Pittsburgh needed. Two months later, Pittsburgh completed an overhaul of the left side of its infield by trading for third baseman Bill Madlock of the Giants. The Pirates were 37–34 when Madlock joined Foli in the infield. They went 61-30 the rest of the way.

The ’79 Pirates were 7–11 in April. They are the only team to play worse than .400 baseball in April (min. 15 games) and win the World Series.

The Most Recent Comeback: 2015 Texas Rangers

This is another story about the impact of trades. The Rangers were 7–14 in April (.333) and 50–52 at the July 31 trade deadline. That day they acquired pitchers Cole Hamels, Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman. Texas lost the first two starts with Hamels but went 10–0 in his starts down the stretch. Dyson and Diekman posted a 1.53 ERA over 53 innings. They won the AL West with 88 wins and lost the ALDS in five games to Toronto.

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