Meaningless Opening Week Statistics

April 11, 2011

Subtitled: Why the Red Sox and Rays should or shouldn’t panic.

Or why the Orioles should or shouldn’t be excited.

The Opening Week of the AL East inspired this post. The Red Sox and Rays both came out of the gate and immediately fell flat on their faces with 0-6 starts.  Both teams’ worst fears were realized: the Red Sox’ weak pitching gave up 38 runs in six games and the Rays’ biggest free agent signing retired six games into the season.

Meanwhile, Orioles’ fans are cautiously optimistic for the first time since the late 1960’s. The Orioles started out 6-1 and will enter April 12 in first place. Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, the Orioles will consider the season a victory after that first week.

The general consensus is that Opening Week is meaningless. Teams have played either six or seven games of a 162-game season. It stands to reason that 4% of a season has very little baring on the rest of the season.

Or does it?

Curious, I went back and looked at the standings after the first week of each season since the league expanded to three divisions in 1994. These statistics are almost certainly meaningless, but they are fairly interesting.

As a tiebreaker, I used run differential to determine which team was in first and last place a week into the season. Not a perfect tiebreaker, but the idea is to pick which teams got off to a hot start and which got off to a cold start, so run differential will do.

Teams that were in first place after Week One:

1st place – 35
2nd place – 25 (13 wild cards)
3rd place – 18
4th place – 17
5th place or last place – 7

Teams that were in last place after Week One:

1st place – 12
2nd place – 12 (4 wild cards)
3rd place – 20
4th place – 14
5th place or last place – 44

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Starting out hot is certainly no guarantee of a playoff appearance, but it doesn’t hurt: 48 of 102 first place teams ended up making the playoffs. And the 48 isn’t limited to teams that were predicted to be good. Five examples stand out – the Marlins in 1997, when they rode a hot start to a wild card and World Series championship in only their fifth year of existence; the White Sox in 2005, when they won their first World Series since 1917 (and the Astros, the very same year, when they made their first World Series); the Tigers in 2006, when they shocked everyone to make the World Series just three years after finishing 43-119; the Brewers in 2008, when they eventually qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 1982; and the 2010 Giants, who finally won their first championship in San Francisco.

Only six teams that led after the first week ended up finishing last. Even that is a little deceptive though. The 1994 Angels (4-3), 1999 Angels (3-3), and 2002 Mets (3-3, 5-way tie for first) all happened to be leading the division after the first week despite being near .500. Only the 1997 A’s (4-2), 2001 Expos (5-1), and 2008 Orioles (4-1) fell all the way to last after solid starts.

On top of that, starting with the league’s best record is a pretty solid indicator of a playoff team, which should bode well for this year’s Rangers. In twelve of seventeen years, at least one team that had the best record after one week qualified for the playoffs.* Only the 2001 Expos (5-1) started off with the best record in the league yet finished last in their division.

* In several years, teams were tied for the best record after one week. Last year, for example, the Phillies, Giants, Tigers, and Blue Jays all started 5-1. The Phillies and Giants both went on to division titles, while the Tigers and Blue Jays missed the playoffs in emphatic fashion. In other years, like 1997, both teams that started out with the best record – the Marlins and Astros at 5-1 – both made the playoffs.

So that’s good news for this year’s first place teams. Teams that start off hot tend to at least contend for a playoff spot well into the season.

The news isn’t as bad for this year’s train wrecks. While a whopping 44 of 102 last place teams have finished fifth or worse in their division, sixteen of them have come back to make the playoffs.

Most of these teams were around .500 and just happened to be in last, but the Red Sox and Rays can take heart with several other teams. The 1995 Reds started off 0-6 before winning the NL Central by nine games in the 144-game season. The 1999 Diamondbacks won the NL West in their sophomore season by a whopping 14 games after finishing 100-62 after starting the season 1-5.

Then there is the 1998 Yankees. One of only a handful of teams in the conversation for the best team ever, the Yankees actually started the season 1-4. Lucky for them, they close well: they won 113 of their next 157 games en route to a 114-48 record. The wild card Red Sox finished 22 games back.

On the down side, only two of the 23 teams that were tied for the league’s worst record after one week managed to come back and make the playoffs: the aforementioned 1995 Reds and 1999 DBacks. A ridiculous 17 of those finished fourth or worse in their division.

Hard to tell what this means for the Red Sox and Rays (other than nothing). Most of the teams on that list were all expected to be terrible. After it turned out they actually were terrible, it is no surprise that they kept sucking. The Red Sox and Rays were not expected to be that bad, so who knows how they will react.

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The full list of teams that finished first after leading one week into the season: 1994 Reds (5-1), 1995 Red Sox (4-2), 1995 Mariners (5-1), 1995 Braves (5-1), 1996 Rangers (6-0), 1996 Padres (5-1), 1997 Orioles (4-2), 1997 Indians (4-2), 1997 Astros (5-1), 1998 Indians (6-0), 1999 Yankees (5-1), 1999 Indians (5-1), 2000 Braves (4-2), 2000 Cardinals (5-1), 2001 Indians (3-2), 2001 Mariners (4-2), 2001 Astros (4-2), 2002 Yankees (5-1), 2002 A’s (5-2), 2003 Yankees (5-1), 2003 A’s (5-1), 2003 Giants (6-0), 2004 Angels (4-2), 2004 Dodgers (4-2), 2005 White Sox (4-2), 2005 Braves (4-2), 2006 A’s (5-2), 2006 Mets (4-1), 2007 Angels (5-2), 2007 Diamondbacks (5-2), 2008 White Sox (4-2), 2008 Angels (4-3), 2009 Cardinals (5-2), 2010 Phillies (5-1), and 2010 Giants (5-1).

The full list of teams that finished last after leading one week into the season: 1994 Angels (4-3), 1997 A’s (4-2), 1999 Angels (3-3), 2001 Expos (5-1), 2002 Mets (3-3), 2008 Orioles (4-1).

The full list of Opening week first placed teams that qualified via wild card: 1994 Indians, 1994 Braves (were both in position when season canceled), 1995 Rockies, 1996 Orioles, 1997 Marlins, 1998 Cubs, 1999 Mets, 2000 Mariners, 2002 Giants, 2004 Red Sox, 2005 Astros, 2006 Tigers, 2008 Brewers.

The full list of teams that finished first after being stuck in last place after one week: 1994 Expos (3-4), 1995 Reds (0-6), 1995 Dodgers (3-4), 1997 Giants (4-2, only 1/2 game back), 1997 Mariners (2-4), 1998 Yankees (1-4), 1999 Diamondbacks (1-5), 2001 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2003 Braves (2-4), 2006 Padres (1-4), 2006 Twins (1-5), 2008 Phillies (2-4).

The full list of wild card teams in last place after one week: 2001 A’s, 2005 Red Sox, 2008 Red Sox, 2009 Red Sox (Take heart Red Sox fans!)

The full list of last placed teams that stayed in last: 1994 Padres (1-6), 1994 Tigers (2-5), 1996 Royals (2-4), 1997 Cubs (0-6), 1997 Phillies (2-5), 1997 Blue Jays (2-3), 1998 Tigers (1-5), 1998 A’s (1-4), 1998 Pirates (3-3), 1998 Diamondbacks (1-5), 1999 Marlins (2-4), 2000 Cubs (2-6), 2000 Phillies (2-4), 2000 Devil Rays (2-5), 2001 Devil Rays (1-5), 2002 Padres (1-5), 2002 Rangers (1-5), 2002 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Brewers (0-6), 2003 Rangers (2-4), 2003 Tigers (0-6), 2003 Devil Rays (2-5), 2004 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2004 Mariners (1-5), 2004 Blue Jays (1-5), 2005 Rockies (1-4), 2005 Pirates (2-4), 2005 Mariners (2-4), 2005 Royals (3-3), 2007 Giants (1-5), 2007 Rangers (2-4), 2007 Royals (2-4), 2008 Mariners (2-4), 2008 Tigers (0-6), 2009 Diamondbacks (2-4), 2009 Nationals (0-6), 2009 A’s (2-4), 2009 Indians (1-5), 2010 Royals (2-5), 2010 Orioles (1-5).

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Opening Day

March 31, 2011

“Ray, people will come Ray.

They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.

Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.

People will come Ray.

The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

–Terence Mann