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Can the Cleveland Indians complete an improbable run to the postseason?

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A tall order, but certainly not one without precedent.

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The Indians have fought their way to within three games of the second Wild Card spot, currently held by the Astros. It's as close as the Tribe has been to a postseason spot since the early days of the season. The Indians have 16 games left in their regular season schedule, 16 games to try to make up the three they are behind.

Obviously the basic math says there is plenty of time; there's technically time for the Indians to win the first Wild Card spot, or even the American League Central. Practically speaking though, that second Wild Card spot is their one chance at the postseason.

Not knowing what I would find, I set out to look at every season since the Wild Card was introduced in order to see how many times a team in a similar position to the one the Indians are in right now has come back to win a spot in the postseason. I used 16 days remaining in the regular season, rather than 16 games left were a particular team, because it turned what would have been an incredibly long search process into merely a very long one. I've also expanded the group of teams I'm listing to all those who were at least 2 games back of the team they caught, rather than 3 games. I've noted how far back each team was though, and you're welcome to ignore those that were only 2 games back, if you like.

Presented in reverse chronological order, here is every team from 1995 through 2014 that was on the outside looking in with 16 days left in the regular season:

  • 2011 Braves (2nd in WC standings, 3.5 games back)
  • 2011: Rays (2nd in WC standings, 4 games back)
  • 2009 Twins (2nd in AL Central, 3 games back)
  • 2008 Phillies (2nd in NL East, 3 games back)
  • 2007 Phillies (2nd in NL East, 5.5 games back)
  • 2007 Rockies (2nd in WC standings, 3.5 back)
  • 2004 Astros (2nd in WC standings, 2 games back)
  • 2000 Athletics (2nd in AL West, 2 games back)
  • 1998 Rangers (2nd in AL West, 2 games back)

A total of 9 teams in 20 seasons have made that sort of comeback at this stage in the season. Only 6 of them were at least a full 3 games back, which works out to not quite one every three seasons. That's not a huge number, but considering that some seasons there aren't any teams within 3 to 5 games of a postseason spot with 16 days left in the season, it's not a total I find especially discouraging. All six of those comebacks have come during the last eight years, which is probably just small sample noise, but seems worth mentioning, in case it's not.

The 2007 Phillies made up the largest deficit, at 5.5 games. The 2008 Phillies are the team that really draws my attention though. Like this year's Indians, they were 3 games out of a postseason spot; they not only came back and found their way into the postseason, they went on to win the World Series.

There's a precedent, people.