The baseball season is a grind of 162 games spread out over six months. It can be a real slog, but if you break it up into six different waypoints, it can help deal with the monotony. Here are six questions that I have on the 1st of each full month of the season. I’ve also done some research on playoff teams during the expanded Wild Card era of 2012-2015, using Baseball Reference’s historical standings data. For each month, I’ll show where the 10 eventual playoff teams were positioned at the end of each month and if they weren’t in position, if they were at least within 5 games of the last wild card spot.
April 1 — WHAT DOES THE TEAM LOOK LIKE?
Hope springs eternal. Even if your team is going to be god-awful, like the Phillies this year, baseball is back and there are always things a rebuilding team’s fans can look forward to. For fans of the Pirates, April 1st brings out the annual narrative that the Pirates don’t spend enough money to compete. Which ignores the fact that the team has been in the playoffs the past three years and last year had 98 wins.
Number of eventual playoff teams that were in playoff positions on April 30 — 24/40
As you can see, there’s a lot of fluctuation after just the first month of the season. There’s always some team expected to be poor or mediocre that jumps out of the gate hot, before eventually fading. Conversely, there are some strong teams that start off slow (like the Pirates in recent years) and build up throughout the year.
Number of eventual playoffs teams that were within 5 games of a playoff spot on April 30 — 40/40
This isn’t surprising because you have to be a special brand of awful to be more than five games out of a playoff spot after just one month.
May 1 — WHAT IS THE IDENTITY OF THIS TEAM?
After a month, players are more into a groove and some injured players start to return. Some players are removed from starting roles, while others force themselves into starting roles due to strong play. In general, things are slowly coming into focus during the month of May, but it’s still too early to get upset or elated with the team.
Number of eventual playoff teams that were in playoff positions on May 31 — 22/40
There’s still a lot of variance around who will eventually be the playoff teams in each league, as just a shade over half of the teams that eventually made it are in those positions at this point of the season.
Number of eventual playoffs teams that were within 5 games of a playoff spot on May 31 — 38/40
Oddly enough, this is the month with the fewest number of teams within shouting distance of the playoffs, albeit it is still at 95%. May is just a month with a lot of moving parts to it.
June 1 — IS THERE ANY HELP COMING FROM THE FARM?
The rhythm of the season has been established and some of the wheat is getting separated from the chaff, in terms of early season surprises starting to fade away. For even casual baseball fans, the draft at least gives a modicum of hope for the future in the form of the 1st round pick. This is also the time when fans can start to look to the minors for the high-end prospects that may arrive in the Majors, after the Super 2 deadline passes around the 15th to the 20th of the month.
Number of eventual playoff teams that were in playoff positions on June 30 — 24/40
Teams are still tightly bunched up for the most part and there’s a lot of movement within the playoff slots. With only 60% of the eventual playoff teams in spots, it shows why teams refuse to pull the plug on the season until the last possible minute sometimes.
Number of eventual playoffs teams that were within 5 games of a playoff spot on June 30 –39/40
The lesson to be learned with this metric is to at least keep it within shouting distance of the last playoff spot. Even though 60% were in position, 97.5% of the teams could still see the last spot if they squinted and got hot for a couple of weeks.
July 1 — ARE WE IN THE PLAYOFF HUNT OR NOT?
July is a huge month in the baseball season. With the non-waiver trade deadline looming at the end of the month, all teams are asking themselves a variation of this question. And then it becomes a matter of deciding just how much commitment a team makes to try and squeak into the playoffs, if they’re on the periphery, or how much to sell of the future for a key piece, if they are a strong contender.
Number of eventual playoff teams that were in playoff positions on July 31 — 31/40
Now the playoff picture starts to sharpen, as 77.5% of the eventual playoff teams were occupying those spots by the end of July. Of course it’s not hopeless if you aren’t in a spot, but you better be close because time is running out. Interestingly, in 2013 all 10 playoff teams in both leagues were in playoff spots at the end of July, the only year in the expanded Wild Card era where that has happened in any month.
Number of eventual playoffs teams that were within 5 games of a playoff spot on July 31 –40/40
All teams were in range of the playoffs at this point, so if you like procrastination in your teams, July isn’t your month.
August 1 — HOW DO WE LOOK AFTER THE TRADE DEADLINE?
Teams that decided to rebuild get to obsess over the shiny, new prospects infused into their system after the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline. Teams that added pieces get to obsess over how they fit into the lineup or the pitching staff, while lamenting what was given up in a trade. It’s at this point that a fanbase starts to get galvanized over their team’s prospective playoff hunt.
Number of eventual playoff teams that were in playoff positions on August 31 — 37/40
At the end of August, you really want to be in your playoff slot, because pickings are slim to try and squeeze in.
Number of eventual playoffs teams that were within 5 games of a playoff spot on August 31 –40/40
And yeah, goes without saying that if you aren’t one of those teams, you better be pretty, pretty close to one of those spots.
September 1 — ARE WE MAKING A PUSH FOR THE PLAYOFFS OR BUILDING FOR NEXT YEAR?
Sometimes quasi-contenders fade in the August heat, reducing the last month of the season to auditions for the September callups. Other teams in playoff hunts are making their final pushes for either the division title or to strengthen their grip on one of the wild card spots.
There’s not much need to show you about playoff positioning, because if you’re not in place by September 30th, the force is not with you to make the playoffs typically (last day heroics in recent years notwithstanding).
I hope that your biggest takeaway from this article is to show that your team (let’s call them the Pirates) doesn’t have to be in a playoff spot from wire to wire, but they definitely need to keep a close eye on it by not falling too far off the pace at any point in the year.