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It’s possible to start as slow as the Giants and still make the playoffs

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In fact, it’s possible to get off to a worse start and still make it to the World Series.

NLCS: Houston Astros v St. Louis Cardinals - Game 6 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Giants have been one of the hottest teams in baseball over the past two months. Only Cleveland, Atlanta, and Washington have better records since June 1, but each of those teams were supposed to be good. The Nationals got off to a horrendously slow start, and even if that didn’t bode well for the rest of the season, I don’t think anyone suspected that Washington was going to end the season with a .424 winning percentage.

The Giants, however, ended May with a 22-34 record, and that wasn’t surprising. This had been one of the worst teams in the majors for years, but suddenly, the Giants find themselves just 2.5 games back of the Wild Card. According to FanGraphs, their playoff odds have skyrocketed to 7.5 percent. Those still aren’t great odds, but they’re much better than they were on May 31.

It’s not impossible that the Giants could still make the playoffs despite having the second-worst record in the National League through the first two months of the season. Teams have done this sort of thing before. I looked at the standings before and after May 31 for every year in the Wild Card era to find the team with the worst record since 1995. I found that in the 23 seasons since the Wild Card was implemented, a losing team through the first two months has wound up making the playoffs 15 times.

Some of these teams were just a few games under .500, and there was one season where the worst playoff-bound team had .564. But the Giants were especially bad in the first two months. Has there ever been a team that approached the Giants’ level of putrid and still made it to the postseason?

Yes! There have been a few actually.

1995 Dodgers

Winning Percentage on May 31: .424

Winning Percentage after May 31: .577

The 1995 season was a bit of an anomaly because play didn’t resume from the strike until April 25. Still, the Dodgers got off to a slow start ending May with a 14-19 record. Mike Piazza, who wound up leading the league in OPS+ that year, only played in eight games through May, and his absence was sorely missed. They rode an 18-10 June back to relevance and played competently into a division title.

Like the 1995 Dodgers, the Giants were without their own Mike Piazza (Alex Dickerson) for a notable period, and they’ve also used an extremely hot month to get back into the chase.

What did they do at the deadline?

The Dodgers made some minor trades in June and one trade at the deadline when they dealt away Ron Coomer, Greg Hansell, Jose Parra, and Chris Latham to the Minnesota Twins. One of those players, Coomer, went on to have a noteworthy career and that’s as a radio broadcaster for the Chicago Cubs. Los Angeles picked up starting pitcher Kevin Tapani and reliever Mark Guthrie. Tapani was about replacement level, but Guthrie pitched solidly for the next year and a half.

2009 Rockies

Winning Percentage on May 31: .408

Winning Percentage after May 31: .637

This brings up bad memories because this came at the expense of the Giants. Despite going 5-1 against the Rockies after the Spilborghs game, the Giants could keep pace with Colorado. The Rockies went 10-11 in September and October to cap off a 72-41 run since May 31.

The 2009 Rockies were carried by two players: Troy Tulowitski and Ubaldo Jiménez. They were the perfect example of an average team that would absolutely dominate in an NBA Jam-style competition where the teams best two players are pitted against one another.

What did they do at the deadline?

The Rockies acquired two relievers at the deadline: Joe Beimel and Rafael Betancourt. Betancourt finished the year with a 1.91 FIP in 25 1/3 innings and re-signed with the Rockies once the season was over. All told, he had a 3.53 ERA in six seasons with the Rockies. Connor Graham, the player who Colorado traded away to get Betancourt, never made the majors.

2005 Astros

Winning Percentage on May 31: .373

Winning Percentage after May 31: .631

The 2005 Astros dug themselves into an even deeper hole than the 2019 Giants, but they still wound up winning the National League pennant. Their offense, led by a rickety Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensburg having a career year, was average at best. Their production at every position ranged from replacement to average. Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler, and Brad Lidge at the top of their bullpen were okay, but everyone else was rather alarming. Where the 2005 Astros really shone though was their starting pitching.

Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt all threw at least 200 innings, and the worst of them was Oswalt at a 144 ERA+. They got nothing from the back of the rotation, but that didn’t matter because in three out of five games, they were unhittable. They were uniquely equipped for a deep playoff run, but they fell apart in the World Series.

The 2019 Giants don’t have the top of the line star power as the 2005 Astros, but they have a much more competent bullpen and the talent in the rotation is more evenly distributed. If the 2005 Astros aren’t the 2019 Giants, they’re at least what the 2009 Giants could have been if they could hit even a little bit.

What did they do at the deadline?

Nothing! The 2005 pennant-winning Astros didn’t make a single trade during the regular season. It’s hard to second guess a team that makes the World Series, but in hindsight, a left fielder or a couple of relievers would have made a huge difference.