Falling back dangerous, even in a marathon

It may be a long season but the Yankees, among others, face overpowering odds at making the playoffs

Originally Published: May 2, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

You don't need to be personally related to Clint Barmes to know that April can be one very confusing month.

If Neifi Perez can outhit Todd Helton by 100 points, if Livan Hernandez can make as many home-run trots as Travis Hafner, if Brandon Lyon can roll up three times as many saves as Mariano Rivera, the easy conclusion is that April is about as meaningful as one of those ever-profound Paris Hilton "Simple Life" episodes.

Except for one thing:

The facts say otherwise.

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens faces an uphill battle to make the postseason
-- for the Astros.

Those pesky facts, you see, tell us that April isn't anywhere near as misleading as the Yankees, Astros, Phillies or Indians would like to believe it is.

Those teams know their lines by heart about now. They know they're supposed to be saying, as often as possible: THERE'S A LOT OF BASEBALL STILL TO BE PLAYED. But is there enough left for them to rescue their seasons? They don't want to know the answer to that.

As we've been writing for years now, April matters. And the facts tell us exactly how much it matters. We've looked at every full season since 1982. Here's what we've found:

Of the 128 playoff teams since 1982, only four (or 3.1 percent) finished April more than three games under .500 – the '87 Tigers (8-12), '89 Blue Jays (9-16), '95 Reds (0-5) and 2001 A's (8-17).

Only three of those 128 playoff teams (or 2.3 percent) finished April more than 4½ games out of a playoff spot – the '87 Tigers (9½ back), 2001 A's (8 out) and 2002 Angels (5 behind).

And of the 108 first-place teams since 1982, 60 (or 56 percent) were in first place at the end of April. That figure jumps to 90 of 108 (or 83 percent) if you include clubs that were within 2½ games of first.

So how does all that apply to this season? Well, if those trends were to continue, the Yankees (10-14 in April), Indians (9-14), Phillies (10-14) and Astros (9-13) would have to beat some truly overpowering odds to find themselves still playing baseball in October. That's how.

Logically, we understand, it's hard for those teams to make that argument register. Logically, it still seems way too early for them to believe their seasons are already in serious jeopardy.

"Heck, we were 10½ games out at the All-Star break last year," Astros GM Tim Purpura said.

"It's a significant month – but not as significant as it feels emotionally," Indians GM Mark Shapiro said.

Yet the facts suggest that those emotions are a big part of this equation.

A 10-14 stretch in April feels worse than a 10-14 stretch in July. It also looks worse in the standings. So why wouldn't dealing with it – and recovering from it – be much tougher?

"It's important not to dig yourself a hole in April," Shapiro said, "because it's hard to get out of that hole. Once you've dug yourself that hole, problems tend to snowball, and it makes it more difficult to dig out of it.

"Take a team that's four games under .500 in June," Shapiro goes on. "You wouldn't say that team is out of it. But when a team is four games under. 500 at the end of April ... the psychological component gets compounded. It's the same as a hitter who starts out 4 for 20."

It's a funny thing about that psychological component. It should work both ways – but it doesn't. History tells us that teams that bury themselves in April seem to feel the pressure more than hot teams benefit from their sweet early vibes.

The White Sox, for example, piled up a .708 winning percentage this April (at 17-7). But they ought to know that two of the last four teams to top .700 in April (the 2003 Royals and 2001 Twins) failed to make the playoffs. And dating all the way back to 1982, one of every three teams like that (nine of 27) failed to make it.

"One thing you should never say is that you're not concerned with wins and losses at this point," Purpura said. "You have to be. April is important. We missed the playoffs by a game two years ago. One game. One win. So one more win in April would have been just as important as one more win in September."

Early Warnings
"CONTENDERS" MORE THAN
3 GAMES UNDER .500
AFTER APRIL
Yankees (10-14)
Indians (9-14)
Phillies (10-14)
Astros (9-13)

MORE THAN 4½ OUT
OF A PLAYOFF SPOT
Yankees 4½
Indians 5

MORE THAN 3 OUT
IN WILD-CARD RACE
Phillies 3½
Athletics 3½
Mariners 3½
Rangers 4
Astros 4½
Yankees 5½
Indians 6

But of all the teams that scuffled through April, none is more fascinating than the Yankees – who wound up the month four games under .500 and 6½ games behind the first-place Orioles. Here are the ominous facts that apply strictly to them:

No Yankees team had been that far out of first after April since 1984. That team finished third, 17 games behind the Tigers.

No Yankees team has ever entered May that many games out and then come back to finish first.

And George Steinbrenner will really enjoy hearing that the 1979 Pirates are the only team since 1935, according to the Newark Star Ledger's Ed Price, to stumble out of April more than three games under .500 and still survive to win a World Series.

Of course, when other teams look at the Yankees, with their $205-million payroll and their 18 former All-Stars, they can't help but wonder if the normal numbers even apply.

"The Yankees," said Shapiro, "are probably a really good example of a team that could defy those odds."

One reason for that, obviously, is that the wild card is out there as their safety net. But the Yankees were 5½ games out in the wild-card race after April, too. So if they look back to the beginning of the wild-card era in 1995, they won't find much encouragement there, either:

Of the 20 wild-card teams since 1995, just three (15 percent) finished April more than three games out in the wild-card race – the 2001 A's (8 out), 2002 Angels (5 out) and '03 Marlins (4 out). And only one (5 percent) was as far back as these Yankees.

And of the 80 teams that made the playoffs since the new format arrived in 1995, a mere 12 (15 percent) had losing Aprils – even if they were just one game under .500. And just two – the 1995 Reds and 2001 A's – were as many games below .500 as the Yankees.

So they can fire out those "it's early" lines all day and all night. They can wait for the Orioles to come back to the pack. They can point out how lucky they are that the Red Sox have had their problems, too.

But the facts are the facts. And the facts will tell them exactly what they've been telling all those other teams for decades – that April matters. It always matters. And we're betting that six months from now, we'll know it mattered just as much this year as ever.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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