Talking Baseball: Memorial Day standings and the post-season playoffs

Baseball statisticians have for years asserted that the standings of baseball teams on Memorial Day are a good predictor of whether your favorite baseball team will make the post-season playoffs or not. But is it true? Well, yes and no in the wildcard era.

Which is good news for my surprising Minnesota Twins this year!

Doug Miller writes at MLB.com, What’s Next: History favors division leaders:

baseballsMemorial Day is full of somber remembrance but also seasonal celebration. We honor those who gave their lives protecting the United States and its freedoms while serving in the military, but we find time to cut loose at backyard barbecues and fete the coming of June and summer proper.

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It’s natural to view Memorial Day, then, as a significant baseball benchmark. Some might wonder if it’s already curtains for the hometown nine that hasn’t gotten it going by now. Some might continue to look at the Major League season as not even a third complete and maintain the optimism of Opening Day.

The big question, as always, is this: Can the clubs that would be postseason-bound entering Memorial Day 2015 last and make it into October?

Keep an eye on them. As of right now, they’re the high-flying Royals, the surprising Astros and Twins, plus the Tigers and Rays in the American League, with the expected Cardinals, Dodgers, Nationals and Giants joined by the young and climbing Cubs in the National League.

So as we enter the ending of a long weekend and the beginning of a new week, we ponder What’s Next, as in, what do these Memorial Day standings mean?

Maybe a lot, maybe not much. Looking back at the nice, round number of the last 20 seasons prior to 2015, we see that the results from the entirety of the Wild Card era might hold some clues, but baseball is hard to predict.

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But there’s some math going on here that shouldn’t be ignored.

Of the last 21 teams who held or were tied for the best record in baseball entering Memorial Day since 1995, 18, or 85.7 percent, ended up making the postseason. That’s not bad. But only five of those clubs — the 1998 Yankees, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 White Sox, 2007 Red Sox and 2014 Giants — won the World Series.

Meanwhile, being in position to make the playoffs at this pivotal spot on the calendar isn’t exactly a certainty, either. Teams leading their divisions or in place for Wild Card berths entering Memorial Day over the last 20 seasons have gone 103-for-173 (59.5 percent). Since the Wild Card era began in 1995, teams in or tied for first place at Memorial Day have a 51.2 percent chance of winning their division, according to Elias.

That leaves a lot of room for error on the part of the front-runners and rallying by the would-be also-rans.

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This year’s best-record-in-ball-on-Memorial-Day darlings, the Kansas City Royals, sit at 28-15 and are three games ahead of the Twins and Tigers in the AL Central. The AL West-leading Astros are 29-16 and mere percentage points behind the Royals for top billing. But while the young Astros are a bit of a surprise, the Royals are coming off a 2014 campaign that saw them take the Giants to the seventh game of the World Series. This seems like it’s not a fluky early-season showing.

“When you go out and play games you absolutely have to win, like you do in the playoffs, it changes your approach,” Royals reliever Wade Davis said. “It’s all about the game that day and how can we win that particular game. That’s how you view the playoffs, and that’s how we view every game right now.”

The Astros are right there with them, as are the other teams right in the Memorial Day mix.

There have been some spectacular September collapses for teams that were leading their division at the end of August. Worst September collapses for every National League team; Worst September collapses for every American League team. So if your favorite baseball team is playing reasonably well there is always the chance that your team can catch fire down the stretch and make the playoffs.

It ain’t over till it’s over. That’s why we play the game.

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