What’s the Best Way to Win the Pioneer League?

2015 Osprey celebrate after beating Idaho Falls 8–1 in Game 3 of the PL Championship Series

Hey O’s fans, welcome to Bird Droppings!

As you’re aware, we continue to inch closer to the start of the regular season, just over three weeks from now on June 19 in Billings. While we always hope for a fast start with victories stacked upon each other in quick succession, I recently wondered how important early season success is to a team’s championship aspirations. How important is it to win the first half? Is the second-half division title the way to go? What about a wild card scenario? Does it even matter?

In honor of that opener against the Mustangs and the genesis of the 2017 season, I took a look at Pioneer League and Osprey history to gain a sense of perspective on what the various routes to the championship look like.

We did the research and wrote up our findings, so just sit back and enjoy!

Since the 1995 season, when the Pioneer League adopted the split-season format that remains in place today, there have been a total of 22 league champions. To gain a little bit more understanding about those teams, we broke down the various types of championship seasons into a quartet of groups. The four classifications we devised are as follows: 1) teams who won only their division’s first half, 2) teams who won only their division’s second half, 3) teams who won their division in both the first half and the second half, 4) teams who made the playoffs without winning either half.

Since that first split-season in 1995, there have been 9 league champions who won their division only in the first half, 6 who won their division only in the second half, 2 who won their division both halves, and 5 who made the playoffs despite winning neither half. In addition to the 5 teams that won the Pioneer League without winning either half in their division, there have been 5 clubs that did not win either half, yet managed to reach the championship series and lose.

Breaking that into percentages, 41% of Pioneer League champions since 1995 won only the first half, 27% won only the second half, just 9% won both halves, and 23% won the league despite failing to win their division at all.

Early returns on our research seem to point to first-half success holding significant weight. Right?

A closer look at all-time first-half winners including both divisions, only 11 of the 44 (25%) have walked away with league championshps. Shrinking that down to the North Division specifically, just 6 of the 22 (27%) teams to win the first half half won the championship.

If you’re anything like myself, you might be presupposed to subscribing to the line of thought that teams who finish the regular season playing the best are most well-equipped for postseason success. That means that, at least hypothetically speaking, second-half winners should be more successful in the postseason historically, right? While that seems to make sense on its face, the history of the Pioneer League, especially in the North Division, doesn’t come close to supporting the idea of a second-half winner’s advantage.

Since the introduction of the split-season format, there have been a total of 18 teams across both divisions to win both halves of their division. Amazingly, only 2 of them (Idaho Falls, 2000 & Provo, 2004) went on to win the league title. Based on this ratio, only 11% of the most dominant teams in regular-season league history have won the championship series!

Furthermore, of the 22 teams to win the North’s second-half title outright, only 2 (9%) have gone on to win the championship series! Further illustrating the postseason struggles of second-half winners in the North, there wasn’t a North Division second-half winner to take home the league crown until Great Falls did it in 2011 and then Missoula again a year later…that means 16 seasons under the split-season format were played before a second-half winner from the North took home the trophy!

Now, of course, the important question we hope to answer from all this information: how do the Osprey fit into this picture?

To answer the question directly, of the O’s 4 championships in franchise history, they’ve done it twice when winning only the first half (1999 & 2015); once when winning only the second half (2012); and once when sneaking into the playoffs despite winning neither half (2006). In no season have the Osprey won their division in both halves. In total, the O’s have appeared in the championship series either 5 or 6 times, depending on if you count their pre-Missoula three-year incarnation as the Lethbridge Black Diamonds. Between the two versions of the franchise, the only losses came in 1998 to Idaho Falls while playing as the Black Diamonds and in 2009 after sharing the first-half division crown with Great Falls.

Based on Missoula’s history specifically, it’s tough to say how important a quick start is in the context of the team’s eventual postseason aspirations. The easiest argument could be made for first-half success being a formula for attaining a postseason future. With two of their four championships coming in seasons that saw them win the first-half title and another appearance involving a first-half tie atop the division, winning early seems to be a pattern friendly to Osprey success.

Perhaps the most striking example of the advantage the O’s have enjoyed when capitalizing on early-season success was their first championship season in 1999. Following a first-place finish in the first half, Missoula faltered in the second half and finished a whopping 9.5 games behind Helena. Without a formidable first half that season, the Osprey would have been deprived of a chance to win the league title that they eventually brought home.

Of course, though, this look through league history wouldn’t be complete without examining the pair of seasons in which the O’s fought into the playoffs only to exit in the divisional round. First in 2001 and then again in 2011, Missoula failed to make the championship series despite winning a division title of some variety. In 2001, the club stormed to a first-place finish in the second half after a second-place finish in the first half. In 2011 the team won the first half before slipping to third-place in the second half. The common thread between the two seasons begins and ends with their early playoff exits.

All in all, the only thing that’s clear is that there is no singular way to the Pioneer League Championship. While some routes have been more successful than others historically, the most we can do is take the past with a grain of salt and dive into 2017 with the depths of our excitement dredged as deep as ever.

Cheers to hoping for a fast start to 2017.

More To Come Soon,

Cooper