The playoffs start tonight. Someone should tell the Yankees. They're going in like a cramped-up marathoner crawling toward the finish line. Over the final week of the regular season, they lost six of their final seven games, getting outscored 47-23 in the process by the Red Sox and Orioles, two teams who finished .500 or worse for the year. The starting pitching was bad. The offense was bad. Even the usually invincible Dellin Betances got tagged for two losses. That week of horror capped off an uninspiring final month that saw the Yankees get bludgeoned out of the AL East race by the Blue Jays and very nearly blow home field advantage in the wild card game. Post-September 1st, they were 15-17 and resembled anything but a real contender.
Does it matter? Everyone's 0-0 again once the postseason begins. You don't get bonus points for finishing strong, and to paraphrase Earl Weaver, momentum in baseball is the next day's starting pitcher. The 2000 Yankees are proof of all that. After losing their last seven games and 15 of their last 18 to finish with just 87 wins (hey, that number sounds familiar...), they went 11-5 in the playoffs on their way to a World Series crown.
Looking back, it seems like once the regular season ended, the Yankees flipped a switch hidden in some electrical closet in the bowels of the old stadium and instantly returned to their dominant 1998 and 1999 form. That's not exactly how it went, though. The ALDS vs. Oakland was no picnic. It took a wild first inning vs. Gil Heredia and six innings of bullpen magic, featuring Mo being Mo and an appearance by El Duque, to close the deal in game five. Over their first six playoff games in 2000–the series against the A's and game one of the ALCS vs. Seattle–the Yankees were 3-3 and scored only 19 runs. "Turning it on" was a gradual process, not an instant one. They were fortunate to survive long enough for it to fully take hold.
This year, facing a single elimination game tonight vs. Houston and Dallas Keuchel, probably the best ground ball pitcher in baseball, the Yankees don't have the luxury of taking their time to figure things out. Aside from that, the team they're going to war with isn't quite reminiscent of what they had 15 years ago, when their roster was comprised mostly of players wearing two or three freshly minted rings. The 2000 team is a good rallying point, but is it a meaningful example or just an exception to the rule?
Of the last ten World Series winners, only one had a record below .500 in September/October: the 2006 Cardinals, who went all the way after winning a meager 83 regular season games. Expand that to include all league champions and you find only two more late-season losers: the '06 Tigers, who Yankees fans were thrilled to meet in the first round that year before getting stomped on by Kenny Rogers; and the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. Overall, the last 20 World Series participants have posted a .603 September/October winning percentage. That doesn't bode well for a team stumbling in like the Yankees, but it's also a bit skewed, since teams who are good enough to make the playoffs usually play well all year.
Getting more specific to recent years, things start to look a bit better. Neither of last year's World Series teams steamrolled toward the end of the year as the Giants and Royals went 13-12 and 15-11 in September. Of the six wild card games that have been played since 2012, only three have been won by the team with the better September/October record, and one of those was a virtual tie, with the 15-12 Pirates beating the 14-12 Reds in 2013. Ironically the Yankees are actually the stronger last month finisher in tonight's match up, since the Astros have two fewer wins since September 1st. Of the five teams who entered the playoffs with a .500-or-worse final month record from 2012 through 2014, two lost in the wild card game and another in the Division Series, but in 2013, the 13-13 Tigers and the 12-15 Dodgers both won a series and made it to the League Championship round.
What the 2000 Yankees did is not something that happens all the time, but struggling and then playing well when you need to isn't a total outlier either. Obviously it's better to be good down the stretch than bad. As often as I tell myself that momentum is imaginary, I didn't enjoy seeing the Yankees play their worst baseball when they should have been easily wrapping up the wild card, and that lasting memory won't fill me with happy thoughts as I sit down to watch them possibly get eliminated tonight. Still, Masahiro Tanaka's ERA right now is 0.00 - same as Keuchel's. Jose Altuve's batting .000 and Evan Gattis, Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus have all hit 0 home runs. It's truly a brand new season where anything can happen.