Searching for Hope: Recent Improbable Playoff Teams

With the first month of the season wrapping itself up Sunday afternoon, the Blue Jays find themselves winners of their past two games. From what I’ve been told, this phenomenon is known as a winning streak, something that Toronto is experiencing for the first time in its 2017 iteration. Their inability to string any wins together has put their current record at 8-17, dead last in the AL East. Even if this team were to turn it around and play the rest of their games at their expected talent level, they would still most likely fall short of the playoffs due to their abysmal start. Combine this with the injuries that the team has suffered in the first month of the season, and optimism has clearly faded for the back-to-back AL finalists.

However, not all hope is lost. The month of May has just begun, and even at who-knows-how-many-at-this-point games back of the division lead, the Jays have 137 games to make an improbable run to the playoffs. According to the Playoff Odds Report at Baseball Prospectus, the low point of the Blue Jays season occurred after Friday night’s game. After blowing a 3-1 lead, resulting in Toronto’s third loss in a row, their odds of reaching the postseason sat at a very low 6.3%. While it will be a long and arduous climb, it one that has been done before. Today, we’re going to look at the five teams since the addition of the second wild card in 2013 to make the most improbable runs to the playoffs – teams whose odds of reaching the postseason all fell below 10% at some point during the season.

2013 Dodgers – 7.4%

The 2013 Dodgers began play with sky high expectations, much like those that followed the frenzied offseason of the AL East “champions-to-be” Toronto Blue Jays. A blockbuster trade the previous August saw the Dodgers acquiring Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Hanley Ramirez to play alongside stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. They already had the best pitcher in the game in Clayton Kershaw, and signed top hurlers Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to long-term contracts during the offseason to make the rotation one of the best in baseball.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, not only were their expectations similar to those of the 2013 Blue Jays, their early season play brought similarly disappointing results. The team struggled out of the gate, breaking even in April with a 13-13 record before playing at a 10-17 clip in May. Injuries ravaged the team, as they lost Ramirez, Kemp, Ethier, Crawford, and Greinke to varying ailments early in the year. The low point of the Dodgers’ season came on June 21, when the team sat with a record of 30-42 – nine and a half games back of the first-place Diamondbacks. This equated to playoff odds of 7.4%, a staggering drop from the 75.3% odds they possessed prior to the start of the season. Manager Don Mattingly was rumoured to be on the hot seat, leading a sure-fire playoff team to last place near the midway point of the season.

Something clicked after that 5-2 loss to the Padres on June 21, however. From June 22 through the end of the year, the Dodgers went 62-28, earning a win percentage of .689 and playing at a 112-win pace over 90 games. This logic-defying run began with a six game winning streak, and followed with several more of varying lengths, highlighted by a 10-game streak capped on August 17. Led by Kershaw, Ramirez, and rookie sensation Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers didn’t lose more than two games in a row again until September 7, and became the first team in the majors to clinch a playoff spot on September 19. They continued their momentum through the first round of the playoffs, beating the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series before falling to the Cardinals in the NLCS.

2014 Pirates – 5.9%

The Pirates won 94 games in 2013, and returned to action in 2014 with largely the same squad. The 2013 Pirates were led by the play of NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, helped by a supporting cast that featured up-and-comers Gerrit Cole and Pedro Alvarez. The Pirates were also aided by successful pitching reclamation projects of familiar names to Blue Jays fans – starters A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, and closer Jason Grilli. All three pitchers experienced comebacks from injury or poor play in recent seasons, helped in part by the influence of backstop Russell Martin and pitching coach Ray Searage. All of these players (with the exception of Burnett) returned to the Pirates in 2014, ready to take another run at the playoffs one year removed from their first in 21 seasons.

After a demoralizing 11-10 loss in 13 innings on May 5 (a game in which they led 8-2), the Pirates were in fourth place in the NL Central with a 12-20 record. This put them nine and a half games back of the division lead and five and a half back of the second wild card, their playoff odds dropping from 21.1% on Opening Day to a measly 5.9%. The Pirates eventually climbed back into postseason contention, but it was not an immediate turnaround.  They rattled off a four game winning streak beginning on May 6, but then followed that by losing five of their next six.

Nevertheless, Pittsburgh began to gain footing in the NL Wild Card race. By August 12, they had played to a 52-35 record since May 5, a 97-win pace. This stretch placed them in the first wild card spot, one and a half games ahead of the Cardinals and Giants. After a three-week bump in the road that saw the Pirates drop to two games back of the second wild card, they finished off the season 17-6, tying the San Francisco Giants and securing a spot in the wild card game. Comeback aside, this would be the end of the road for the Pirates, who fell as the first victims of Madison Bumgarner’s historic 2014 playoff performance.

2014 Royals – 6.8%

Another casualty of Bumgarner’s ridiculous playoff run in 2014, the Kansas City Royals, came into 2014 with playoff aspirations. Owners of the longest active postseason drought in North American professional sports at 28 years, Kansas City had just played to its first winning season since 2003. The young core of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Perez, and Alex Gordon was gaining experience, complemented by staff ace James Shields and a sterling bullpen who finished 2013 with the lowest ERA in the AL.

The Royals started off the season well enough, earning a record of 14-11 in the month of April. The month of May did not serve manager Ned Yost and the Royals as well. On May 29, Kansas City headed into a series at the Rogers Centre 24-28, good for fourth place in the AL Central and four games back of the second Wild Card spot. While not a massive deficit, six different teams stood in the way of the Royals’ postseason climb, bringing their playoff odds from a mark of 23.6% on Opening Day down to 6.8%.

The Royals’ misfortune turned around quickly – after the Toronto series, they went on to win 13 of their next 15 games, quickly vaulting themselves to the top of the AL Central. How would the masters of small ball follow up this impressive streak, you might ask? Well, they stumbled to a 9-18 run, finding themselves once again four and a half back of the second Wild Card on July 21.

This up and down season had not made its final swing, however, as the Royals played the remaining 64 games at a 104-win pace. They finished the year with 89 wins and home field advantage in what became one of the greatest wild card games ever played – a 9-8, 12-inning thriller against the Josh Donaldson-led Oakland Athletics. The Royals emerged victorious, and continued their magical turnaround season all the way to game seven of the World Series, where it finished with the tying run stuck on third base.

2015 Rangers – 4.1%

For a new generation of Blue Jays fans, the 2015 ALDS against the Rangers was the first glimpse of playoff baseball in Toronto. Exciting as it was, the match up was dangerously close to not coming to fruition, as both teams overcame odds of 10.8% or less to make playoffs. While this is as low as it got for Toronto, things were looking even worse for the Texas Rangers on several occasions during the 2015 season.

After putting up a dreadful 67-95 record in 2014, the Rangers looked to be in for a re-tooling season in 2015. The year started with little improvement, as the Rangers struggled to a 7-14 record in the month of April. The team continued to slump through May 19, at which point they went on a surprising 20-7 run. On June 17, the Rangers found themselves 36-30 and within two and a half games of the AL West-leading Astros.

The Rangers roster that went on this run could not sustain this performance, and from June 18 through July 20, the Rangers went on a 7-18 stretch, dropping them nine games back of the division lead. Their playoff odds dropped to 4.1%, essentially taking them out of the playoff race with a roster that didn’t look to be able to contend. Given the lead they had to overcome to make the playoffs, the Rangers then made a move to help build for next year – a move that ended up saving their 2015 season.

On July 29, the Rangers acquired Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman from the Phillies for several prospects. Two days later, the team picked up Sam Dyson from the Marlins in a low-profile move. These two deals helped set the table for the most improbable playoff run since the birth of the second wild card. After the Hamels trade, the Rangers finished the year 39-22, a 104-win pace, to finish the year at 88-74 with the AL West crown.


Not much else needs to be added about how their season ended.

2016 Mets – 7.6%

Coming off a run to the World Series in 2015, the Mets entered 2016 with hopes of taking the final step. They re-signed 2015 cult hero Yoenis Cespedes for the upcoming season, and returned with one of the most intimidating and promising young rotations of recent memory. The NL East was seen to be as a two-horse race, with the only question being whether it would be the Washington Nationals taking home the division title, or the Mets defending their crown. The start of the season went according to plan, as the Mets got out to a 20-11 start. This put them a half game ahead of the Nationals, and helped New York to a 90.1% chance of making the playoffs.

Then, the injuries hit. Through late April and May, the Mets lost Travis d’Arnaud, Wilmer Flores, Lucas Duda, and David Wright, all in the range of one month to the entire season. Before long, the injury plague began to take victims of the rotation as well – Matt Harvey was gone for the season in July, and Steven Matz went on the DL for the remainder of the season in August. These injuries, in combination with general bad play, led the Mets to a 40-51 stretch.

By August 19, the Mets record had dropped to 60-62, firmly leaving them out of the NL East picture at 12.5 games behind the Nationals. They were also five and a half games back of the second wild card, and with three teams to pass, saw their odds of reaching the playoffs drop by a whopping 82.5%, down to 7.6%. There’s a reason the 2016 Mets made this list, however – a season-defining stretch of baseball was still in the works. The Mets finished the season on a 27-13 run, a pace that would have netted them 109 wins over a full year of baseball. Finishing the year at 87-75, their season ended (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) with a dominating performance from Madison Bumgarner, who shutout the Mets in a 1-0 Giants win in the NL Wild Card Game.

2017 Blue Jays

To recap, five teams have made the playoffs since 2013 with postseason odds of 7.6% or less at one point in the season. This is not to suggest that a playoff appearance in 2017 is bound to happen for Toronto, as you would find more teams who have missed the playoffs in these situations than those who have reached them. The presence of these comeback stories also does not diminish the fact that the Blue Jays have had a terrible start.

Yet, the dream could still be alive. Teams have been worse off and still made the playoffs.This is the nature of baseball, a sport defined by its randomness and improbability. While this aspect of baseball can be maddening, it is also the reason why we continue to tune in every night. We don’t want to miss out on an incredible comeback story, and to participate in a season that many have proclaimed over to potentially turn into something noteworthy. And if they’re lucky enough, the Blue Jays just might do it.

Lead Photo: © Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

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