Hopelessness and You

The Phillies are on a four-game winning streak coming off of a three-game series sweep of the Washington Nationals at home, just their second sweep of the season. They may be 16.5 games out of first place in the NL East, but they are 9.5 games back of the second Wild Card. With memories of the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals, who memorably went on a late-season rampage into and through the post-season, Phillies fans are finding a small glimmer of hope in what has long been considered a failure of a season.

If you will, allow me to be a wet blanket. Baseball Prospectus still has the Phillies’ playoff odds at zero percent and they haven’t had a non-zero chance since July 26. After the division-leading Washington Nationals, Cincinnati Reds, and San Francisco Giants, there are four teams with significant playoff chances eyeing either of the two Wild Card slots beyond their division crown: the Atlanta Braves (87 percent), St. Louis Cardinals (63 percent), Los Angeles Dodgers (46 percent), and the Pittsburgh Pirates (25 percent). Two other teams have a small but non-zero shot: the Arizona Diamondbacks (3 percent) and the Milwaukee Brewers (0.1 percent).

Here’s a look at the standings:

Team W L PCT WCGB WCE # G Left
ATL 73 55 .570 34
STL 70 57 .551 35
LAD 69 59 .539 1.5 34 34
PIT 68 59 .535 2.0 34 35
ARI 64 64 .500 6.5 29 34
PHI 61 67 .477 9.5 26 34
MIL 59 67 .468 10.5 26 36
NYM 59 69 .461 11.5 24 34
SDP 59 70 .457 12.0 23 33
MIA 58 71 .450 13.0 22 33

The Phillies would have to topple all but one of those teams just for a shot at a one-game Wild Card playoff. They are 61-67 now, and let’s assume that 89 wins gets you in the second spot since the Cardinals’ .551 winning percentage yields 89 wins over 162 games. The Phillies would need to win 28 of their remaining 34 games, an .824 winning percentage. Even the red-hot 2011 Cardinals, to which many point as evidence of hope for the Phillies, went 18-8 in September, a meager .692 winning percentage. In 2007, the Phillies impossibly went 13-4 to close the season and steal the division crown from the New York Mets, yielding a .765 winning percentage. Just to have a realistic shot at making the playoffs, the Phillies would have to go on a historically-great month-long run.

But wait, that’s not all. All but one of the teams ahead of the Phillies would have to falter, finishing at 88 wins or below. Let’s assume the 73-55 Braves get the first spot. That means that the Cardinals would have to win no more than 18 of their remaining 35 games, the Dodgers 19 of 34, the Pirates 20 of 35, and the Diamondbacks 24 of 34. Additionally, none of the teams behind the Phillies could go on a historically-great run either, with the Brewers and Mets maxing out at 29 remaining wins. So you’re betting on the Phillies winning at least 82 percent of their games and the Cardinals less than 52 percent, Dodgers 56 percent, Pirates 58 percent, and the Diamondbacks 71 percent. You’d have a better time trying to make four of a kind on the river in Texas Hold’em.

It’s great that the Phillies have found their way up to third place in the division while rattling off three separate winning streaks of at least three games since August 12 (going 10-5 in the process), but it is too little, too late. They fell too far behind early, particularly with a 9-19 June that caused them to sell on Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, and Joe Blanton. Besides, even if the Phillies were to somehow win a Wild Card spot, they would simply be put into a one-game playoff that is essentially a coin flip. And then if the Phillies won that, they would have to beat a team like the Reds, Giants, Dodgers, or Nationals, a tall task despite the recently-completed three-game sweep of the Nationals. It will be a while until the Phillies face mathematical elimination, but they are for all intents and purposes practically eliminated.

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  1. Richard

    August 27, 2012 08:13 AM

    heh, yeah too little too late; they’re playing better baseball, which is nice enough (and supplying some good reasons to be hopeful about next season).

    My only minor quibble with your post is the bit at the end where you suggest that, even if they were to somehow, against enormous odds, win the second WC AND the coin-flip game, beating the Reds, Giants, Dodgers, or Nationals would be a particularly “tall task”. It would be, but no more so than any short series is. There’s nothing about any of those teams that is especially scary for the Phillies when they are playing decent baseball. The Phillies would be the underdog in any such series, and rightly so, but as we’ve seen so many times in the past, shit happens in the playoffs.

  2. JM

    August 27, 2012 08:56 AM

    I also disagree with the last sentance. If the Phillies won 83% of their remaining games(and i don’t think they will), They would have to be favored when rolling out any of Halliday, Lee, or Hamels for a 1 game contest.

  3. beisbol

    August 27, 2012 09:13 AM

    For those who want hope: assuming the Braves make the playoffs in the scenario you present is not a sound approach, since for the Phillies to make it you have to figure the Braves will post an 0-6 or 1-5 mark against the Phillies in their six remaining games. That would throw the Braves into the field of teams also having to play a few games over .500 to finish ahead of the Phils, but now instead of three out of three teams having to fail to do for the Phils to make the playoffs, it would be sufficient for just three of four to fail to do so (forget the Brewers, Mets, and Diamondbacks). Those are far better, yet of course still quite daunting, odds.

    The real goal for the Phils is making the last 12 games of the season relevant. The Phils now have three against the Mets [in which they’ll be favored], then six tough games on the road against the Braves and Reds. If they somehow get through that stretch at 7-2, on Sep 7 they would then embark on one of the least difficult 13-game stretches in their season [Rockies and Marlins at home, followed by Mets and Houston for 7 on the road]. At 68-69 on Sep 7, they would have to be considered part of the picture, since it’s not crazy to project them go 11-2 in those 13. That would leave them eight over .500 with 12 to play, nine of which would come against the Braves (3) and Nats (6). The Braves series would be first, at the Bank, and almost certainly crucial. That would at least be fun.

    But yeah, your basic premise is correct. They’re almost certainly not making the playoffs.

  4. Joe

    August 27, 2012 09:17 AM

    Cool Standings has the Phils at a solid 0.1% chance of making the playoffs. “So you’re saying there’s a chance…”

  5. Marrrk

    August 27, 2012 09:21 AM

    What prompted this piece, Bill? Do you get harassed by fans who take the “they technically are not out of it yet” thing too far? I’m legitimately curious because I imagine you’re like me, in that, while you know it’s insanely unlikely, you’re still technically hoping it happens.

    While the piece provides excellent context, as usual, it also seems like it’s mocking anyone who hasn’t totally abandoned all hope, seemingly just for the sake of abandoning it, and that I cannot get behind.

  6. Dan K.

    August 27, 2012 10:21 AM

    “Baseball Prospectus still has the Phillies’ playoff odds at zero percent and they haven’t had a non-zero chance since July 26.”

    While we both know better than to hold our breath waiting for the Phils to make the playoffs this year, this is also misleading. It’s at 0% ROUNDED, but the Phillies have actually been at a non-zero percentage all year and will continue to be until mathematically eliminated closer to the end of the year.

    I don’t have a problem with what you are saying, actually people could use some perspective. However, if we’re going to use mathematics, let’s be exact. This rant comes courtesy of my Masters of Math mom (alliteration!).

  7. Frank Reynolds

    August 27, 2012 11:04 AM

    I am not on the playoff bandwagon. They are not making the playoffs. But I will admit that I am guilty of thinking about the “what if they do”. I think it would be somewhat comical. I think about how they would have Frandsen, Kratz, and a variety of fourth outfielders in the starting line up in a playoff game. If they they were to win that one game playoff would KK be the fourth pitcher? I think that is funny.

  8. Mike

    August 27, 2012 12:42 PM

    I completely agree it’s a stretch to say they will make the playoffs, but winning streaks go a long way in creating a high win percentage. They have the players that can have done it before (Utley, Howard, Rollins), and the pitchers that, at their best, can shut down any offense. All I need to see is that games behind mark lowered to about 7 by the end of the week, and I truly believe that they have a chance.

  9. Drew

    August 27, 2012 01:33 PM

    Totally academic question since it’s not happening, but just say, hypothetically, the Phils made it to the 1-game WC playoff game this year: who would you want starting?

    Halladay is the standard answer, of course, but while a tremendous pitcher, he’s also still coming off an injury. Lee is absolutely sick when he’s on but a bit less consistent. I think it’s fair to say that *this year*, Hamels has been healthier and more dominant than either. Do you go with him, or stick with Doc? (Or Cliff?)

  10. Marty

    August 27, 2012 03:24 PM

    beisbol, I had the exact same thought as you, regarding the Braves.
    You point out that this changes it from the Phillies needing three out of three teams to underperform, to needing three out of four teams to underperform. The news is even better on that front, though. The Giants weren’t mentioned because they lead their division, but they’re only two games ahead of the Dodgers, so they are another candidate to make a fall from grace.

    One last optimistic point:

    The mean that we are deviating from is not the Phillies playing .500 baseball; it’s more like the Phillies playing .551 baseball, as they get above average production at every position on the team besides the outfield, and maybe the bullpen. This team was predicted to win 92-ish games before the season (and the trades of Vic and Pence, hence .551). As long as we’re utilizing inference, we might as well use some high probability subjective judgments. Unfortunately, the same logic makes collapses from Atlanta and St. Louis less likely, too. On the flip side, though, the Pirates and Giants are both candidates for negative regression. The Pirates are all overperforming, and the Giants had a relatively lousy run differential even when they had Cabrera, and both teams could easily miss their “magic numbers” relative to the Phils.

    I think the bottom line is that if you assume the Phillies are going to go on an insane hot streak, then while probability would still be against them, it wouldn’t be a completely vain pursuit; their probability of making the playoffs would significant, albeit unfavorable.

  11. Chris

    August 28, 2012 10:40 AM

    I think a likely best-case goal for the Phils is to finish 81-81. Not playoffs, but considering where they were at it would still be kinda neat.

    6 against the Mets, Phils go 4-2

    6 against Atlanta, Phils split 3-3

    6 against Nats, give em another split 3-3

    3 against Cinci, let’s have Cinci win that series 2-1

    4 against Houston, Phils win 3-1

    6 against Miami, Phils win 4-2

    3 against Colorado, Phils win 2-1

    This would be a 20-14 finish.

  12. Chris

    August 28, 2012 10:41 AM

    oops I mean 21-13 which would actually be 1 game above.

  13. Eric

    August 28, 2012 01:27 PM

    If the phils are about to come out of this season at .500 or better, it would be a HUGE accomplishment. It will also provide momentum going into next season.

    With the core players healthy, or nearly there, expect the Phils to take off next season.

    At least that is what Im hoping for!

  14. Phillie697

    August 28, 2012 02:21 PM

    I hope for lots of young players playing in Sept. so we know what we got for next year, instead of chasing this silly .500 dream.

  15. Dean

    August 28, 2012 03:01 PM

    I have been a Phillies fan since 1964. You remember what happened in 1964, right?! It would be nice to have someone else collapse this year! It ain’t over until its over. Hope springs eternal.

  16. beisbol

    September 09, 2012 06:46 AM

    So the Phillies went a deflating 5-4 during that nine-game stretch vs. NYM, ATL and CIN. All losses in close games, and one horrible defeat.

    But an interesting thing is happening on the way to the abbatoir. The playoff-entry bar is being lowered as we speak. STL is just nine games over .500, the Dodgers are eight over, Pittsburgh six. Milwaukee is surging, but still under .500.

    Considering trends and consulting remaining schedules, the second wild card is now likely to be won around 12-14 games over .500.
    Meaning the Phils can lose three (maybe four) more games and still get there. Have to sweep COL, MIA, and lose just one combined to HOU and NYM.

    Still a huge longshot.

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