You can’t win the division in April, but you can lose it.*
I mean, I get the point. When you book losses early, you are stuck with them the rest of the year. Though baseball has a long season, if you get too far in the hole sometimes you can’t climb out. Fine.
* Sometimes people use the adorable anachronism “pennant” instead of “division” when repeating this cliche. Let’s not get hung up on this detail, and instead just assume the issue is whether or not the team eventually qualifies for the postseason.
But putting aside any literal interpretation of the cliche (you cannot, after all, literally win or lose the division in April), the first clause of this cliche is trying to say something that sounds right, but is totally wrong, along the lines of:
‘the lead you establish in April won’t be enough to get you in the playoffs if you underperform (relative to other teams in your division) for the rest of the season.’
And that just isn’t true.
Look at the 1982 Braves. They won 16 games in April. Then they played .500 baseball the rest of the year. From May to September BOTH the Dodgers and Giants won more games than the Braves. But it didn’t matter. The Dodgers and Giants couldn’t catch up. The Braves established a decisive lead in April. That’s how they won the division.
That seem like a fluke to you? Here is a list* of teams that took big leads in April and then were outplayed by other teams in their division from May to September. Each of these teams still made the playoffs because they got a big lead in April.
*My list only goes back to 2000, because I don’t have all day.
A Quick List of Teams That Basically Made the Playoffs in April (even though they got outplayed the rest of the season), going back to the year 2000.
- 2013, Boston (Tampa Bay won more games than them from May through September)
- 2010, Tampa Bay (The Yankees won more)
- 2009, Dodgers (Colorado won more)
- 2007, Boston (Yankees again)
- 2005, White Sox (Cleveland)
- 2004, Dodgers (Giants)
- 2003 Cubs (Houston)
- 2000, Braves (Mets)
So, you certainly can win the division in April.
Can you really lose the division in April – have a terrible April, then win more games than all the other teams in your division from May through September, and still fail to make the playoffs?
- 2005, Philadelphia (they wen 10-14 in April, then 78-60 the rest of the way)
- 2005, Cleveland (9-14, then 84-55)
- 2004, San Francisco (10-14, then 81-57)
- 2004, Oakland (11-12, then 80-59)
- 2003, Houston (11-15, then 76-60)
- 2000, Toronto (12-14, then 71-65)
It hasn’t happened in nearly ten years, but it happens. And you don’t need a terrible April record for those losses to doom you at the end of the season (of those on this list, Cleveland had the worst April win percentage at .390). Compare that to Houston’s 2014 April win percentage of .321, or Arizona’s .290. They will, you know, really have to turn it on if they want to make the postseason.