Is There Any Carry Over to a Big Finish?

The 2013 season will end for 20 of the 30 big league teams on Sunday, and a majority of those teams have been out of the playoff race for quite some time. For rebuilding clubs or teams whose seasons didn’t go as they planned, the last few months of the year have been about playing for pride. Managers will motivate their players to continue working hard by talking about ending the season on a high note, so that when everyone reports to spring training the following year, they feel good about how they finished strong the year before.

This year, there are three teams who are going to miss the playoffs but are certainly ending on a high note; the Angels, Royals, and Nationals. Each one came into the season with postseason aspirations but have fallen short of the mark due to a poor first half performance. Since the trade deadline, though, all three have taken off. Here are their records through the first four months of the season, and then their records down the stretch.

Team Win% through July 31 Win% since August 1
Washington 0.481 0.627
Anaheim 0.453 0.566
Kansas City 0.510 0.564

If these teams had played all season like they have over the last two months, the Nationals would have won the NL East and the Royals and Angels would be in serious wild card contention. For the final 60 games of the season, these teams have played like they belong in the postseason. But will it help them in 2014?

Recent history says no. Below are the teams that finished strong in each of the last three seasons after poor starts that kept them from playoff contention, only now, we’re also going to list their record in the following year.

Team Year Win% through July 31 Win% since August 1 Win% Next Year
Milwaukee 2012 0.456 0.610 0.453
Philadelphia 2012 0.447 0.593 0.453
San Diego 2012 0.419 0.561 0.472
Los Angeles 2011 0.449 0.630 0.531
Baltimore 2010 0.308 0.586 0.426
Houston 2010 0.427 0.542 0.346

Of the six teams that made dramatic improvements in the final two months of the season, five of them finished below .500 the next year. None of the six made the playoffs in the year following their strong push to the end the season. In fact, their overall average winning percentage in the following season (.447) was much closer to their early season struggles (.417) than their late season surge (.587).

Logically, we shouldn’t be that surprised by these results, given that the time period of poor play is twice as large as the period of time in which the teams played well. If a Major League club struggles for four months and then succeeds for two months, we should still place a larger emphasis on the four months because the sample is twice as large. As humans, we tend to place a very strong emphasis on recent performance, but the evidence does not suggest that we should abandon what we learned early in the year simply because these teams made a good impression to finish the year.

The Angels played poorly for four months because their pitching was atrocious and their two high paid sluggers were severe disappointments. Those problems have not just magically disappeared. Same for the Royals and their inability to score runs. The Nationals are probably the most likely of the three to contend next year without major improvements, but even they should not be simply counting on their end of season run as a sign of things to come. All of these teams need to improve in the off-season, and should not be tricked into thinking that 2014 will pick up where 2013 left off.

Baseball just doesn’t work that way. Earl Weaver had it right when he said that momentum was the next day’s starting pitcher. A team’s ability to play well is minimally, if at all, impacted by their results the day before. By the time an entire winter has passed, and the team reconvenes for spring training, the impact of how a team finished the prior year is completely non-existent, at least in terms of predicting wins and losses for the next season.

It’s better to play well down the stretch than to fall apart entirely, but don’t read too much into late season performances. You are almost always better off looking at a team or players entire season rather than slicing it into arbitrarily smaller sections in order to spot a trend. All the games count, not just the most recent ones.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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