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Strong Start, Strong Finish?

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The M's have started strong, but what do the last few years tell us about the meaning of that start?

Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Last night's game notwithstanding, this season has been one of surprising success for the Mariners. The M's currently sit atop the AL West, with a 1.5 game lead over last year's division champs and a 6.5 game advantage over the team many (including this writer) picked to win the division, the Houston Astros.

I think it's fascinating how quickly the Mariners have turned things around: Per Fangraphs, the Mariners began the season with a 17.1% chance of winning the division, and they are now up to 46.5%. Their playoff odds have increased from 32.3% to 57.3%. It got me thinking, how have other teams that have so quickly increased their projections fared the rest of the way?

Using the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds History tool, I went back and identified the two teams that had the largest increases in divisional odds from Opening Day to May 7. Buckle up, folks!

2015

Houston Astros (86-76, 2nd in AL West, Wild Card #2)
Opening Day May 7 % Change
Div Odds 5.0% 32.4% +27.4%
Playoff Odds 14.9% 48.5% +33.6%

We all remember the Astros' meteoric rise from a bottom-dweller to a contender well before anyone expected (remember that SI cover?)

But the Whiz Kids couldn't keep it up the entire season, with a particularly-damaging four game sweep at the hands of the Rangers relegating them to second in the division.

St. Louis Cardinals (100-62, 1st in NL Central)
Opening Day May 7 % Change
Div Odds 50.0% 73.4% +23.4%
Playoff Odds 66.7% 88.4% +21.7%

On the other hand, the Cardinals were a prohibitive division favorite, with the BP odds giving them a 50-50 chance at winning the Central on Opening Day. A 21-7 run to start the season only solidified their chances, putting them 6.5 games up in the division. They couldn't quite keep that level of play up, but finishing with 100 wins? Not too shabby.

2014

Detroit Tigers (90-72, 1st in AL Central)
Opening Day May 7 % Change
Div Odds 51.6% 84.7% +33.1%
Playoff Odds 59.9% 90.9% +31.0%

Like the Cardinals, the 2014 Tigers began the season as division favorites and sprinted out to a 20-9 start. They held off the hard-charging Royals with a victory on the last day of the year before getting swept by the Orioles in the ALDS.

It should be noted, however, that part of the reason they were close was the acquisition of David Price at the deadline. Price was worth almost two wins to the Tigers, but Mariner fans likely remember that deal for another reason:

(Austin Jackson probably missed this pitch, though.)

Milwaukee Brewers (82-80, 3rd in NL Central)
Opening Day May 7 % Change
Div Odds 15.5% 39.0% +23.5%
Playoff Odds 27.4% 55.2% +27.8%

This might be hard to believe (I know it was for me), but the Brew Crew started out on a tear in 2014, winning 10 of their first 12 and 20 of their first 27. As late as June 28, Milwaukee was 6.5 games on the second-place Cardinals in the division.

But, alas, Cinderella stories don't always have happy endings. Remember all those mid-summer swoons the Mariners used to be masters of? The Brewers experienced theirs just before the All-Star Break, going 2-10, and a 1-13 stretch in late-August and early-September officially doomed them.

2013

Texas Rangers (91-72, 2nd in AL West, lost tiebreaker game)
Opening Day May 7 % Change
Div Odds 29.7% 71.9% +42.2%
Playoff Odds 54.2% 82.3% +28.1%

These Rangers feature a few notable Mariners (Adrian Beltre! Leonys Martin! Nelson Cruz!) as well as some incredible throwbacks (Lance Berkman!!!). The Rangers were just 20-13 on May 7, a far cry from what might be expected from a 71.9% favorite to win the division. But they were greatly helped by the Angels' collapse, as in Albert Pujols' second season, the Halos started out 11-21 before finishing 78-84.

Alas, due to a late-season surge from the Athletics, the Rangers failed to win the division and then lost a tiebreaker game to the Rays that would have put them in the second wild card position.

Atlanta Braves (96-66, 1st in NL East)
Opening Day May 7 % Change
Div Odds 24.1% 47.8% +23.7%
Playoff Odds 40.2% 64.8% +24.6%

The Braves are among the most similar teams to this year's Mariners, with their divisional odds just 1.3% away from those of the M's. And they also started the season 17-12. A 14-game winning streak in late July and early August proved crucial to winning the NL East by 10 games. Perhaps most encouragingly for the thin Mariners farm system, the Braves didn't have to make any midseason deals to improve their team.

Takeaways

Like many others reading this, my daily routine after waking up in the morning includes checking the playoff odds on Fangraphs or BP. We're lucky to be able to do this, because last year's playoff odds were normally pretty depressing for Mariner fans.

Most of the teams that experienced similar climbs in playoff odds over the first month-plus of the season ended up making the playoffs. Even if you exclude teams like the '14 Tigers or '15 Cardinals, which were both heavy favorites at the season's outset, the '15 Astros, '13 Braves, and '13 Rangers all ended up playing at least one extra game, while the '14 Brewers are the only squad to flunk out.

It's foolish to say that a series in mid-May is crucial for a team's chances in the playoffs - just take one look at the playoff odds history over the years and you'll see crazy swings even in September, much less May. But given the fact that the Astros were pretty big favorites this year, winning the last two games in this series could go a long way, and they'd certainly have a big impact on the Mariner playoff odds.

That all being said, we'll find out if the M's follow through with a playoff birth from their strong start on the field and not by looking back and checking odds. Happy viewing, folks.

Go M's.