At some point in the next few days the Chicago Cubs are going clinch the National League Central. Perhaps the champagne will have been popped by the time you read this article. But with the inevitability of a division title established some time ago, a debate has already begun online. There’s a fear shared by some that the Northsiders will have won too soon. These fans say an extended period of meaningless games will leave Joe Maddon’s team rusty for the postseason.
The best way to examine if an early playoff berth can hurt a club’s postseason prospects is to examine the last few World Series victors. For this article, I looked at the last 10 World Series winners and the last three Cubs playoff teams. I wanted to see whether a long gap between securing a playoff spot and the actual postseason really translated to a lack of playoff success.
The last four World Series winners actually make a case against the momentum theory. The Giants, Royals, and Red Sox clinched with an average of 7.5 games left in their respective seasons. Only the 2015 Royals had a winning record after clinching, going 6-4 in the 10 games after securing the AL Central. Last year’s runner-up, the New York Mets, went 2-5 after winning the NL East.
The momentum narrative really had, for lack of a better term, momentum in the six seasons prior 2012, though. From 2006 to 2011, World Series champions clinched with an average of only 1.6 games left in the season. Only the 2009 Yankees clinched with more than 3 games remaining.
It will come as little surprise that no team helped the late-clinch-momentum theory more than St. Louis Cardinals. The 2006 and 2011 Cards teams did not secure a playoff berth until the final game of the season. The former team, which brought a Series title to the Lou with 83-79 record, is often an example cited in support of the hot-at-the-right-time idea. It’s entirely possible that that whole concept is simply a mislabeled version of Cardinal Devil Magic.
Another commonly referenced example of the dangers of securing a playoff role too early is the 2001 Seattle Mariners. The M’s won 116 games and clinched the AL West with 16 games left in the season. The fighting Piniellas went 10-6 over those last 16 games before falling to the Yankees in the ALCS. So, clearly no team that wins so early can ever win a World Series, right?
Well, don’t say that to the 1998 New York Yankees, who proved that a dominant season can pay off. The Yanks won 114 games during that tremendous campaign in the Bronx. In fact, the Bombers clinched the AL East with 19 games left. Did that long layoff hurt New York? World Series trophy number 24 would indicate it didn’t.
So how about the Cubs’ recent playoff trips? Is there any correlation between when they clinched and postseason performance? In 2015, Chicago clinched with 8 games to play and went 8-0 down the stretch. The Mets, who had played so badly after clinching the NL East, would go on to sweep the Cubs. 2007 saw them clinch with two games left, while 2008 was locked up with eight games remaining. Yet both teams ended with three-game sweeps in the NLDS.
In the end, it feels like the whole momentum argument is a post-fact narrative. If the Cubs lose quickly this postseason there will undoubtedly be claims that the team was rusty after claiming the division too early. On the other hand, if the title drought ends in 2016, the extensive rest will be hailed as the deciding factor. Make sense?
Regardless of how you view the idea of the importance of the date of a team’s clinching, I think we can all agree that if the Cardinals somehow sneak in we will all be frightened no matter what the numbers say.