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Monday, October 9
Is there hope for the Yankees?
By Dave Pease
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: The team of writers from the Baseball Prospectus (tm) writes for ESPN.com Insider. You can check out more of their work at their web site at baseballprospectus.com.

What is the single best predictor of a team's postseason performance?

I don't know either, but before the playoffs began, there were a lot of people out there that sounded like they knew exactly where the smart money should go. Because the two-time defending champion New York Yankees lost their last seven games (and 15 of their last 18), they were considered dead meat at the hands of the brash kingslayers in Oakland. Playing the Division Series? Merely a formality, and the streets of the Big Apple will soon run red with the blood of former Yankees employees while a firebreathing George Steinbrenner flattens structures from Manhattan to Yonkers.

Before you put your 401(k) on the Athletics, though, keep in mind that this theory can easily be tested. Unlike conventional wisdom about a team's "heart" or "chemistry" being responsible for their postseason success, the records of playoff teams at the end of their regular seasons are easily available. Is the way a team plays at the end of the regular season a good predictor of postseason performance?

In this study, we looked at the records of playoff participants from 1979 to 1999, disregarding the goofy 1981 playoff structure and the lost postseason of 1994. That gave us a total of 386 playoff games to work with.

Seven days
As you've doubtlessly heard, no team had ever entered the playoffs with a seven-game losing streak prior to the 2000 Yankees. Using regular-season data supplied by Keith Woolner, I compared the records of teams over the last week of the season with their postseason performance. Because there are many teams represented by this study, I broke down the results by winning percentage and also included number of decisions, so you get an idea of the sample size.
Last week           Postseason
Win Pct.   #Dec.    Win Pct. #Dec.
1.000-.901  10       .500     14
.900-.801   62       .602     98
.800-.701  178       .367    147
.700-.601   90       .521     94
.600-.501   80       .452     73
.500-.401  133       .506    154
.400-.301   72       .570    114
.300-.201   67       .526     78
           692               772

There's really not much of a trend here, but it is interesting to note that the teams that played below .400 ball in the last week of the season had positive winning percentages in the playoffs. In any case, taking the last week's performance certainly doesn't seem to predict anything based on this sample; based on this data, the Yankees' losing streak shouldn't have anything to do with their fitness for the postseason.

Seven days of baseball is a small sample, and we can probably do better. The Yankees did lose 15 of their last 18, so we could look at 18 days for these teams; instead of getting overly cute with the data tailoring, let's look back for a whole month -- almost a fifth of the season.

Thirty days
Over the last 30 days of the season, the Yankees put up a record of 12-18 and a winning percentage of .400. That's a record Sammy Sosa could get all by himself: just look at the Cubs this year for proof.
Last week           Postseason
Win Pct.   #Dec.    Win Pct. #Dec.
.800-.751   111      .350     20
.750-.701   198      .476     63
.700-.651   541      .512    164
.650-.601   513      .496    121
.600-.551   665      .527    201
.550-.501   254      .507     73
.500-.451   291      .471     70
.450-.401   146      .478     46
.400-.351    27      .500     14

Again, this doesn't seem to indicate that it's much better to win a lot than it is to lose a lot down the stretch. Four teams managed to win three-quarters of their games over the last month of the regular season in this study: the 1983 White Sox, the 1988 Mets, the 1995 Yankees and the 1999 Diamondbacks. All four were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

Only one team in the data set had a worse record over the last month than this season's Yankees. The Padres endured a terrible stretch to end 1998; the pitching staff generally went into the dumper and the once-formidable offense turned into so much roadkill. The Padres stumbled to a 10-17 record and a .370 winning percentage. Then, bucking conventional wisdom, they made it all the way to the World Series, where they were dusted by the Yankees.

The problem the Yankees have is that there are too many guys from that 1998 squad still hanging around the roster, starting and making world champion salaries. When New York loses this postseason, it will have a lot more to do with that then how they happened to play the last week of the season.

Dave Pease may be reached at dpease@baseballprospectus.com.

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