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Does a big second-half improvement carry over into the next season?

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Is there such thing as momentum?

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The second-half Royals are nearly unrecognizable from their first-half counterparts. The team is younger, faster, and better than the team that stunk up the joint with a 27-68 record at the All-Star break. The Royals will likely exceed that total in the second half in far fewer games, having gone 22-28 already, winning 11 of their last 17.

Is there a benefit to finishing strong? Certainly it has given fans more hope for the future, but have teams that had a major improvement in the second half seen that carry over into the next season?

To find out, I took all teams since 1995 and looked at which teams had the biggest improved split between first-half* winning-percentage and second-half winning-percentage. I divided the teams into two groups - teams that were okay, then became unstoppable in the second half; and teams that were terrible in the first half, and become pretty good in the second half. Let’s start with the teams that went from “meh” to “magnificent.”

*-”Half” in baseball refers to games up to the All-Star break, which is typically well past the actual numerical halfway point of the season. That’s just the way Baseball References splits it up, so that’s what we’ll go with.

MLB greatest improvements, good teams since 1995

Team First Half Second Half Difference Overall record Next year Improvement
Team First Half Second Half Difference Overall record Next year Improvement
2001 Athletics .506 .773 .267 .630 .636 1.0%
1996 Red Sox .424 .636 .212 .525 .481 -8.4%
2003 Twins .473 .667 .194 .556 .568 2.2%
2017 Indians .540 .730 .193 .630 .562 -10.8%
2015 Blue Jays .495 .676 .181 .574 .549 -4.4%
2017 Cubs .489 .662 .173 .568 .579 1.9%
2008 Astros .463 .636 .173 .534 .457 -14.4%
1995 Yankees .455 .628 .173 .549 .568 3.5%
2012 Athletics .500 .671 .171 .580 .593 2.2%

The 2013 Royals are not far off this list and while I thought the 2014 Royals might make the list, but they are much further down. The 2001 A’s are the Moneyball A’s that won 20 games in a row in the second half. The 2003 Twins are the ones that caught the Royals after they had their amazing start. You might think that Royals club would be at the top off the opposite list - biggest drop-offs in the second half - but they aren’t anywhere close. The 2001 Twins had the biggest drop-off.

Last year’s Indians and Cubs are on the list, as are the 2015 Blue Jays that the Royals defeated in the ALCS. It seems as if most teams that got good in the second-half stayed good. The 1996 Red Sox didn’t - they would have a rare losing season the next year. But that 1997 club was a bit of an aberration - the squad would win 90+ games the two seasons after that. The 2008 Astros were also a bit of an aberration, but in an opposite way. The franchise was in serious decline, losing 85+ games the year before, and the two years aftewards, with only their hot second half of 2008 keeping them from another such season.

Good teams could have had mediocre first halves and showed their true talent level in the second half. But what about teams that just start out pitifully and play well to end the year? Let’s look at the teams that went from terrible to tolerable.

MLB greatest improvements, bad teams since 1995

Team First Half Second Half Difference Overall record Next year Improvement
Team First Half Second Half Difference Overall record Next year Improvement
1997 Phillies .282 .571 .289 .420 .463 10.2%
1995 Mets .362 .587 .225 .479 .438 -8.6%
2005 Rays .315 .534 .219 .414 .377 -8.9%
2000 Astros .345 .560 .215 .444 .574 29.3%
1995 Marlins .358 .566 .208 .469 .494 5.3%
1998 White Sox .407 .592 .185 .494 .466 -5.7%
2002 Blue Jays .395 .579 .184 .481 .531 10.4%
2006 Pirates .333 .514 .181 .414 .420 1.4%
2001 Mets .427 .603 .176 .506 .466 -7.9%
2010 Orioles .330 .500 .170 .407 .426 4.7%

The 2000 Astros were coming off a 97-win season and still had a loaded lineup, but their pitching stunk, missing ace Mike Hampton, who was traded to the Mets. They look more like an underachieving team that played to their true talent level in the second-half, but with too big a hole to dig out of. The 1998 White Sox also look like a team that had been .500 for a few seasons, and just got off to a terrible start in ‘98 before they regressed back up towards the mean.

If you’re looking for a team making progress towards a contender, the 1995 Marlins may be the team you are looking for. In just their third year of existence, they made tremendous strides in the second half, and were near .500 the next year. The used the core they had developed in 1995 - Charles Johnson, Jeff Conine, Gary Sheffield, and Robb Nen - and supplemented them with young talent in the farm system (Edgar Renteria, Luis Castillo, Livan Hernandez) and high-priced talent (Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Bobby Bonilla) to win a championship in 1997.

The 2010 Orioles were also a franchise on the rise, playing better in the second half. They were lousy again in 2011, but in 2012 they won 93 games. However there was quite a bit of turnover from 2010 to 2012, with the only real mainstays being Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Chris Tillman, and two of those guys were long gone by the time the team was in the ALCS in 2014. The 1995 Mets were also building a young team with guys like Edgardo Alfonso, Todd Hundley, Butch Huskey, and Bobby Jones all playing parts on Mets teams in the late 90s that would compete for division titles.

The 2002 Blue Jays’ success was very short-lived. They improved in the second-half and won 86 games in 2003, their most wins in five seasons. But they went back to 94 losses in 2004. Teams like the 1997 Phillies, 2005 Rays, and the 2006 Pirates were just spinning their wheels, using their hot second-half to get excited only to be dropped down into baseball Siberia once again.

What does this mean for the Royals? Well their second-half success is a bit unique in that they have different personnel in the second half than they did in the first. The encouraging play of young players like Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn, and Brad Keller should give fans hope for the future. On the other hand, the career development for many young players is fraught with stops and starts. Just look at the career of Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas, two All-Stars, and you can see peaks and valleys. To truly have a good team, the Royals will need a cluster of young players like this, probably supplemented with a few veterans.

And it may be that the fruits of a successful second-half don’t truly materialize for a young team for another year or two. In 2011, the rookie season for Hosmer and Moustakas, the Royals finished close to .500 in the second-half, including a 15-10 September for a team that lost 91 games overall. The team was still lousy in 2012, losing 90 games, but by 2013 they were on the edge of contention and by 2014 they were pennant-winners.

Should these wins down the stretch mean much? Probably not. But winning with young players means much more than winning with old veterans, and Royals fans should be encouraged by the way their young players are developing. If nothing else, the winning sure is fun.