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How Well Do Hot Teams Fare in the Playoffs?

Both the Cardinals and the Dodgers were hot to end the year, albeit to different levels. This does not appear to give either team an advantage, although the Cardinals’ second half changes make them more than the typical average team that peaked at the right time.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

With the St. Louis Cardinals entering the playoffs on a hot streak there is hope that the team may knock off the 106-win Dodgers, however unlikely this scenario is. The Dodgers have perhaps the most talented team in baseball and finished just one win shy of having the best record in baseball. The Cardinals recent 17-game win streak does not make them as good of a team as the Dodgers, but it does mean that they are playing their best baseball of the season coming into the playoffs.

The Cardinals closed out the season with a record of 19-3. This makes the team much hotter than some of the other hot teams in recent postseason history, but it is still possible to make a comparison. In addition, the Dodgers finished the year with an 18-4 record while winning their final seven games. This makes both teams almost equally hot.

With both teams entering the playoffs on a hot streak, this article will look at how ‘hot’ teams have performed in the playoffs. Such an inquiry will provide historical context for the National League Wild Card game on Wednesday night. This article will look at playoff teams going back to 2012, the year when the playoffs were expanded to include a second wild card team.

In 2012, both NL Wild Card teams entered the playoffs on hot streaks. The Cardinals finished the year winning 12 of their last 16 to finish with a record of 88-74. The Braves went 94-68 and won 13 of their last 18 entering the playoffs. The Cardinals went on to win the Wild Card game and then their NLDS series before losing in the NLCS.

Notable examples of teams going on runs similar to the 2021 Cardinals and 2021 Dodgers and then losing early in the playoffs include the 2013 Indians, the 2017 Indians, and the 2019 Brewers. The 2013 Indians team won their final ten games and 15 of their last 17 before losing in the Wild Card game, the 2017 Indians were the top seed in the AL and went 25-4 in September before losing in the ALDS, and the 2019 Brewers went 18-5 in their last 23 games before losing in the Wild Card game.

While there is plenty of precedent for hot teams losing early, there is also precedent for hot teams going on runs. In 2012, the Giants won 16 of their final 22 games and went on to win the World Series, while in 2013, the Cardinals won 10 of their last 12 and lost in the World Series. In 2019, the Nationals won 10 of their last 11 games and went on to win the Wild Card game and the World Series.

These are just a few notable examples of each scenario, but there are plenty more. Thus, it appears that there is not a significant correlation between playoff success and how hot a team is to end the season. In fact, the 2014 Giants serve as a counter-example of a team that struggled at the end of the year but then went on a run in the playoffs as they won the World Series despite finishing the year 4-6 in their last 10 games.

There are plenty of factors that can effect how well a team plays at the end of the season. To begin with, teams bench their starters when they have nothing to play for. This can lead to good teams losing more games as they rest key position players and pitchers. This can also lead to fringe playoff teams winning games that they otherwise might lose against good teams. This can effect how hot a team is considered to be going into October.

Additionally, with teams getting a couple days off between the regular season and the playoffs, there is time for each team to rest and reset. This can bring a hot team back to normal levels and do the same for cold teams. There is also an element of randomness to the playoffs as anything can happen in a one game match-up or a best of five or seven series.

A team can get hot in the playoffs, but how that team ended the season does not appear to have much of an effect. As a result, it is unlikely that the Cardinals recent 17-game winning streak or the Dodgers 7-game winning streak to end the season will give either team an edge.

It certainly cannot hurt a team to hit its stride going into the playoffs, but it does not seem to have any added advantage. Obviously context is important and for a Cardinals team with a much different roster from the first half of the season and a much better second half record, the recent hot streak may be more indicative of a team that can sustain its success. The match-up with the Dodgers is difficult, but this is a team with an improved pitching staff and a lineup anchored by Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill. Thus, the Cardinals are not the typical average team that peaked at the right time.

Both of Goldschmidt and O’Neill finally saw their hard hit balls drop for hits in the second half and their expected numbers and batted ball data support their second half surge. When combined with a revamped pitching staff that has allowed the (arguably) best defense in baseball to work, it is clear that the Cardinals are a much better team than they were in the first half of the season. Even though the 17-game win streak may have inflated the Cardinals’ second half record a bit, it is clear that the team’s true talent is closer to what it showed in the second half of the season.

The Dodgers had a second half record of 50-21. This is not significantly better than the Cardinals second half record of 46-26. The Dodgers played good baseball all year, but the Cardinals came on strong in the second half after reworking the pitching staff. As a result, both teams had close to the same second half record despite the Dodgers winning 16 more games overall.

This is a good sign for the Cardinals as they will need to match up against the most talented roster in the MLB. The problem for the Cardinals is that while they are good and hot, the Dodgers are elite and hot. With no real correlation between playoff success and end-of-season success, the scales are certainly tipped towards the Dodgers overall talent. Again though, there is an element of randomness to the playoffs and the Cardinals are certainly no strangers to turning end-of-season runs into Wild Card spots and Wild Card spots into World Series wins.