Monday, May 2, 2011

Today's Stance: How Important is Winning in April?

I began researching this topic after the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland Indians jumped out to fantastic starts, while the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays began the season with six straight losses.  The AL East, it seemed, had been turned upside down.  I knew that six or seven games was a small sample size, but what about at the end of April?  Do records of teams in baseball's first month correlate to post-season births?  Do teams who get off to starts with a winning percentage of .600 or higher make the post-season?  How often do teams that finish April under .500 make the post-season?

Using data from 2001 through 2010, here is what I found:
  • The 2002 Anaheim Angels (11-14) and the 2003 Florida Marlins (14-15) finished April under .500 and went on to win the World Series
  • 19 of 80 teams during the time period finished April under .500 yet made the playoffs
    • Another 4 teams were at .500
  • In 2007, four teams finished April under .500 and made the playoffs
  • Three teams which finished April with MLB's best record failed to make the playoffs
    • 2002 Seattle Mariners (18-8, 93-69)
    • 2006 Chicago White Sox (17-7, 90-72)
    • 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks (20-8, 82-80)
  • Five teams finished April at or above .600 and ended the season under .500.  The worst turn around...
    • 2005 Orioles started 16-7 and ended up 74-88
    • 2009 Blue Jays started 15-9 and ended up 75-87
  • The 2001 Oakland A's ended April at 8-17 and finished 102-60 winning the AL Wild Card
    • May - September they were 94-37 (.686), a remarkable finish yet were out performed by...
  • The 2001 Seattle Mariners finished April 20-5 and ended the season 116-46
    • May - September they were 96-41 (.701)
  • The Atlanta Braves had three seasons in which they were under .500 at the end of April and made the playoffs
So what does all this mean? Well, many experts selected the Boston Red Sox to win the AL East or at least be the AL Wild Card winner after their off-season free agent acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.  They got off to a rough start losing their first 6 games and finished the month 11-15.  They have a long haul ahead of them but as some of the information generated suggests, they should not be considered out of it now either.  Just look at the Tampa Bay Rays, who also started by losing their first 6 games.  They stormed back and won 15 of their next 21 games and sit just 1.5 games back of the New York Yankees.

The AL Central may be the division with the biggest surprises in the first month.  The Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, were predominately mentioned as pre-season favorites to win their division.  However, Chicago (10-18) and Minnesota (9-17) found themselves 9 games behind the biggest surprise in baseball, the Cleveland Indians (18-8) at the end of the first month.  Will Cleveland falter like the '02 Mariners, '06 White Sox and '08 Diamondbacks? Can the White Sox or Twins completely reverse themselves like the 2001 Athletics?

In the National League, standings at the end of April are not too shocking.  I suggest we pay close attention to the Florida Marlins (16-9) and the Colorado Rockies (17-8).  Both teams had a very good April despite poor performances from superstar players (Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins and Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies).

It's been said the baseball season is not a sprint, it's a marathon.  Underdogs welt and favorites survive.  It is true that prizes are not given out at the end of April but in October.  A hot start doesn't guarantee anything and a poor start does not ensure a lost season.  However, the combination of an underdog team like the Indians setting a strong pace early on, along with dismal results of divisional favorites, the White Sox and the Twins, make the chances of a wire to wire finish by Cleveland well within reach.