When a major league baseball team enters September with a cushion of five games or more in the pennant or wild card race then they typically can hang on and get ready for their berth in the playoffs. From time to time, though, we’ll see a team that seems determined to fall out of playoff contention. A playoff team should be rounding into top form in late September, but these teams will lose far more than they win, and they can let a team that should have been totally out of contention get right back into the hunt. When a team is collapsing down the stretch it provides a real challenge for handicappers. You have to decide whether the teams are going to continue to falter, or if they are likely to find their game and get back on track again before it is too late. Here are six factors to consider as you try to determine whether a collapse is likely to be fatal:
How have they played since the all-star break? – Sometimes a September collapse is really just an illusion. In truth, they may have not been playing particularly well at all since the all-star break, but they played well enough early in the season to build up a big cushion that made it seem like they were playing better later on than they really were. If a team is in the midst of a September collapse then the first thing to do is compare their play before the break to their play after. If there is a significant difference between the two periods in terms of runs scored, runs allowed, or other key stats then you have a much better sense of what is really going on, and will be better able to handicap the squad.
Were they overachieving early? – In some cases what appears to be a collapse is really just a correction that follows a long period of overachieving. If you watch baseball then you can surely think of plenty of examples of a team that gets off to a better than expected start but just can’t keep it going. That often happens by or before the all-star break, but sometimes it can stretch into the late summer or early fall because the team comes crashing back down to earth. Was the team performing well above expectations for much of the season? You can get a sense of this by looking at their statistical performance on a month by month basis. If they were performing well ahead of what they should have been able to in key stats – hitting, pitching, road performance, and so on – then the collapse could just be the re-establishment of reality.
How is their rotation holding up? – A team can only go as far as their starting pitching will carry them. That means that evaluating the rotation is a good starting place when looking at collapsing teams. Is the rotation healthy? Have they statistically tailed off down the stretch? Are they coming out of games sooner, striking out fewer, and walking more? If the rotation is struggling then the team will naturally struggle. Once you have spotted the starting rotation you need to assess whether it is a minor slump, or whether the indications are that the rotation is unlikely to recover and find their game again in September.
Has the bullpen stayed strong? – If the rotation has remained solid then the bullpen is the next logical place to look to assign blame. Is the bullpen pulling their weight in recent games, or have they begun to falter under the strain and workload? Quite often the latter is the case for a collapsing team. It is especially common for that to be the case if the bullpen had been particularly good early on. Opposing teams will work hard to find a way to minimize the impact of a very strong bullpen, and as the season progresses they will have more video and personal experience to scout the bullpen and getting ready to face them. If a bullpen is showing clear signs of struggle down the stretch it is very hard for them to get back on track. Bullpen woes, then, are a major issue.
How is the team that is chasing them playing? – The better the team or teams that are chasing them is playing, the more nervous and tense the team can get, and the harder it can be for them to focus and stay positive as things are going badly. It makes sense, then, to look at those chasing teams. Are they closing ground because of exceptional play, or just because the leading team is playing so poorly? Are they playing in a sustainable fashion for the talent they have, or are they unlikely to be able to hold on?
Is the public reading the collapse well? – As with so much of sports betting it is at least as important to be able to read how the betting public is responding to a situation as it is to be able to read the team itself. If the public is panicking and assuming the worst then you might be able to find attractive value if you still have faith in the team. If the public maintains their faith in the team, though, then the lines could be tighter and you will want to be more certain that they can win before betting on them.