Obviously it is always going to be easier to win ballgames versus an inferior opponent. So logically you would want to face the weakest opposition you could when the season is on the line. Sometimes people suggest that those weak teams aren't as easy as they look when they have nothing to play for anymore, but most baseball wisdom espouses the thesis that weak teams at the end of the season roll over easily when they fall behind. So what is the real answer? Are bad teams even worse in September?
The Cleveland Indians had a great setup schedule-wise down the stretch. They clearly had the easiest opponents to face relative to their competition for a wild card playoff spot. As we know now, they took full advantage of that opportunity. Their final five series were mostly comprised of 14 games against three of the worst teams in the majors this year: Chicago White Sox, Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros. Cleveland feasted to the tune of a .778 winning percentage.
Sequencing is an interesting thing to consider when it comes to baseball. A team can produce double digit hits in a game, but have it deliver little in the way of actual runs. Other times the total runs and total hits match up pretty closely just because they were strung together in a row. Sometimes a given team might be struggling due to injuries to key players, or streaky players are mired in a slump collectively. So a lot of times looking at head-to-head results from two teams doesn't explain as much about them as one might think. For example, the Yankees won six of seven they played against Cleveland, and outscored them by 30 runs in those games.
So how should we look to answer this question? I took the winning percentage of every bad team for the last five years, and then compared it to their September/October winning percentage. I wanted to look solely at the really bad teams. So the cutoff I used was sub-70 win seasons. Technically comparing the last month with the total that includes that last month isn't perfect, but I'm not trying to get an absolute number of how much worse. If there is a significant enough difference, then this simple analysis should show it. So what did the data show?
The total number of teams that qualified as being bad enough was 28 over the last five years. About 61% of those teams produced a winning percentage below what the team did for the total season. The average total season winning percentage for the group was .393, and in September/October it dropped to .374. Seven of those teams, or 25% of the group, produced a putrid winning percentage that started with a two handle. However, three of those seven teams were from this year. Guess who? So how much of it was the bad teams in September or the strong play of Cleveland this year?
It does appear that bad teams do perform worse at the end of the year, but this isn't an exhaustive study by any means. One could suggest that my simple analysis could be spurious as it just happens to confirm our inclinations, but perhaps there could be this much variability in any other given month I could have chosen to examine. In reality, I still suspect this is right. The primary reasons are likely due to the traditional belief that weak teams at the end of the season are likely to roll over easier when they fall behind in games. Also, bad teams probably give more playing time to September call-ups from the minors.
So how lucky was Cleveland then in getting a schedule that concluded the season with so many games against bad teams? If you believe my simple analysis, then they clearly would have won more than just what would have been expected from each teams' winning percentage before September. However, Cleveland also deserves their due since those three bad teams they played produced sub-.300 winning percentages in September in part to their play.
If we exclude the Cleveland games, then how did those teams perform? Chicago won at a .318 clip versus the .250 they did including Cleveland. Houston would barely get above .300, but that doesn't sound like much since they produced sub .300 for each of the last three months of the season. That's Pepe Le Pew bad. Minnesota was also still horrible even excluding Cleveland.
So where does this get us? First, it helps to play bad teams in September, and it probably could be assumed to have added 2-3 wins, judging by the decline in average win percentages over the last five years. Second, Cleveland probably does deserve some credit, considering that the three bad teams they played all wound up having really bad Septembers, and by really bad I mean sub-.300 win percentages, which happened only 17% of the time in the previous four seasons. The fact that it happened three times this year is partly due to Cleveland's play down the stretch. Lastly though, that second point shouldn't be overstated, because those three teams were still just horribly bad even excluding their games against Cleveland. Thus, I think it is safe to say that they weren't just lucky to get to play bad teams at the end of the season, but those bad teams were really pushing the envelope of sucktitude this year in a way that doesn't consistently happen every season. For three teams to play that horribly in one year, and to all play a significant number of games against one playoff contender and not the others was pretty damn lucky. You know, depending on your perspective.