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“What’s your 20?”

Posted By Diane Firstman On April 29, 2009 @ 11:18 am In Diane Firstman | Comments Disabled

Much has been written about the need for the Yanks to get off to a strong start in the highly-competitive AL East.

With last night’s win over the Tigers, the Bombers have a 10-10 record after their first 20 games.  Some would call that disappointing.  Some would call for Joe Girardi’s head on a platter.  Some would step back and say “given all they’ve been through, 10-10 is pretty decent.”  But perhaps a larger question is . . . do the first 20 games of a season make or break your chances for the playoffs?

To attempt to answer this, I’ve analyzed the performances of all 104 playoff teams in the wild card era from 1996-2008 (I excluded 1995 due to the shortened schedule).  I first looked at how those teams did in their first 20 games:

Wins

# Teams

6

1

7

2

8

8

9

12

10

10

11

21

12

9

13

24

14

8

15

4

16

4

17

1

At first glance, it would seem that starting off winning roughly 2/3rds (13 of 20) of your games makes you an instant playoff contender.  But overall, the playoff teams averaged “only” 11.5 wins in their first 20 games (.575 winning percentage), and there was a 2.3 win standard deviation in the group. (For the math-challenged, that means that roughly 2/3rds of the teams were within 2.3 wins (higher or lower) of that 11.5 average.) In fact, roughly 30% of the playoff teams won half or less than half of their first 20 games.  So, it would appear that Yankee fans don’t have to panic just yet.

The playoff teams finished the seasons with a combined .584 winning percentage (roughly 94.5 wins). If this figure holds true for 2009, that means the Yanks must go 84-58 (.592) the rest of the way. By the way, the subgroup of playoff teams that started EXACTLY 10-10 ended up playing .578 ball (roughly 93.5 wins).   So it IS possible for a team to overcome a “mediocre” start, especially if we are speaking of a mere 20 games.

For thoroughness sake though, we should examine the final records of all teams (playoff or not) that split their first 20 games.  There were 57 such teams from 1996 through 2008.  We previously mentioned that 10 of those teams (17.5%) made the playoffs.  However, the “10-10″ group as a whole finished, perhaps not surprisingly, with an average 80-82 record.  Also, even with a standard deviation of 9.5 wins, that means that roughly 2/3rds of the teams finished with between 71 and 89 wins.

In the “possible bad karma” department, the Yankees have had one season since 1996 in which they’ve won exactly half of their first 20 games.  That was . . . last year.  In fact, the Yanks have had eight such starts in their history, and have never once gone on to the post-season.  (To be fair, it should be noted that they’ve made the post-season six different times after winning fewer than half of their first 20 games, including as recently as 2007, when they started 8-12).

So what’s the bottom line? Its early.  And though teams that play .500 ball in their first 20 games generally stay at that level, its also entirely possible to right the ship from that point forward.


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