Sleeping In

A few days ago on Facebook, a friend linked to an article meant to calm Blue Jays fans panicked over the team’s 1-6 start. Not to worry, the piece argued, “Slow starts are nothing new to the Blue Jays”; only one winning April since 2010, and sub-.500 Aprils in both of the past two playoff- bound seasons. The Jays have since lost their next three games, leaving them at 1-9 for the first time in franchise history. The same friend put up another link this morning meant to tell everyone it’s time to give up: “1-9 Teams Don't Make the Playoffs” says the Bluebird Banter site, based on evidence gathered over the past 30 seasons. I didn’t see the Bluebird Banter piece until just now, after spending the past day looking into the exact same question: how significant is a 1-9 start to the season? It’s an idea I became interested in some 30 years ago, when Bill James had a long piece in the 1985 Abstract (just the second Abstract I’d bought at the time) about the Tigers’ phenomenal start to the ’84 season, when they won 35 of their first 40 games (and nine of their first ten). James was looking at the same question turned upside down: how significant is a 9-1 start to the season? Looking at the game-by-game logs of all teams between 1965 and 1984--minus the two strike seasons; not sure why--James came to the general conclusion that significance starts to establish itself as soon as 10 or 11 games, but only at the extremes: “A .450 team doesn’t go 11-2; at that moment, you have credible evidence that the team is improved. Going .450 is inconsistent with the perform- ance expectations of a .450 team.” James included various expected-frequency tables to back up the claim, but I’m too lazy to wade through them at the moment. The piece stayed with me. Even at 1-6, I was starting to think the Jays were close to entering that zone of significance; three games later, I think they’re there. To test this, I did what James did (and what the Bluebird Banter site has done), started looking for all teams that had started a sea- son either 1-9 or 0-10. At first I was only going to go as far back as the beginning of divisional play in 1969; I had it in my mind that the dynamic of a season was fundamentally different before divisional play, and that anything earlier didn’t mean the same thing. I also had this notion that the first half of the century was filled with all these perennial doormats--the Braves, the Senators, the Phillies--and that they’d be showing up on the list constantly, without the draft and free- agent mechanisms in place today that are supposed to help such teams climb out of perpetual misery. I was wrong: awful starts were no more frequent in the first half of the twentieth century than they are today--they may in fact have been less frequent, although you’d have to adjust for the number of teams to be sure. Anyway, I kept going back, all the way to when the American League joined the National in 1901. Before getting to the list, let me say that it must have been fun to do this kind of research in 1984. Even with Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I still had to click through season by season and look at the standings on a given date (which I then had to continually adjust, as there was a con- siderable amount of variance in season start-dates through the years) to assemble what follows. No idea what hellish route James had to take. He did have one smart shortcut in generating his data: “I compiled (or actually, I hired Chuck Waseleski to compile for me)...” Starting a season 0-10 or 1-9 is not easy to do; I found only 42 teams besides this year’s Jays that have done so since 1901. Here are their seasons broken down by their first ten games, their records the rest of the way, and their overall W-L records for each season. (I don't know how to format a table with HTML, so I had to convert a Word document to a .jpg image.) That’s where the Jays are right now: in the company of the ’62 Mets, the ’03 Tigers, the ’88 Orioles (who started the year 0-21), and the ’04 Senators, four of the most famously awful teams ever. (The ’52 Pirates just missed the list thanks to a jack-rabbit 2-8 start.) A few other teams of some notoriety: the '98 fire-sale Marlins (defending World Champions, scat- tered to the four winds), the '87 Indians (who were picked by Sports Illustrated to win the World Series, and then went on to post the worst record in baseball--what's known as the M.P.E., or Maximum Possible Error), and the '68 White Sox, who even as measured against the Year of the Pitcher had to have had one of the most abysmal offenses ever (not a single player slugged over .400, including all the part-time players with fewer than 100 AB; as a team they hit 71 HR, scored 463 runs, and had a slash line of .228/.284/.311). So where does all this lead? 1. How many of these teams went on to make the playoffs? Zero. As the Bluebird Banter piece says, it simply doesn’t happen, even if you extend their chart all the way back to 1901. I'll note here that probably the most famous comeback team of all, the ’51 Giants--Bobby Thomson, Russ Hodges, etc.--also just missed the list at 2-8, which soon went to 2-12. The Giants went 96-47 from that point forward, a .671 clip, which got them into a one-game-playoff. All the Jays would need to grab a wild-card spot would be .570-.580 the rest of the way; if you think they can do that, rest easy. I'm seeing the 2011 Red Sox mentioned as a (sort of) encouraging precedent, starting off 2-10, climbing to 31 games over .500 and a 1.5-game lead in the AL East on August 31--the team had gone 81-42 in the interim, almost a .667 clip--and then commencing one of the great collapses in recent history over the next month-plus. Also absent from the list is my 1974 Mac's Milk pee-wee team, which finished last in the regular season but went on to take the championship behind a pitcher who learned how to throw a knuckle-curve and was able to use that to intimidate terrified 12-year-olds. 2. How many of these teams ended up with a winning record? Five: the 1983 Astros, the '80 Braves, the '22 Reds, the '21 Cardinals, and the '16 Giants. Collectively, they went 420-312 (.574) the rest of the way--squarely in that wild-card range for the Jays. 3. How many of these teams ended up exactly at .500? One, the ’73 Cardinals. That was the famous NL East race won by the “You Gotta Believe” Mets, where five of the six teams were within 4.0 games of the lead going into the final week. 4. Did any teams play .500 or better for the rest of the year but still finish under .500 for the season? Two: the '59 Tigers and the '44 Cubs, bringing the total of teams that were able to post a winning record for the rest of the year to eight out of 42, or about one in five. But 13 went on to lose another 100+ games, almost one in three. 5. How many of these teams got even worse after their first 10 games? Again, zero. The Jays are going to get better--they won’t end up 16-146. 6. What can you expect of the Jays? The very best case scenario would be the '21 Cardinals, who went 86-57 after a 1-9 start. They had Rogers Hornsby having one of his three or four greatest seasons; we’ve got an ailing Josh Donaldson. The very worst case scenario is, no surprise, the ’62 Mets: 1-9 start, 39-111 the rest of the way. They had Marv Throneberry; we’ve got Justin Smoak. Call that a wash, but we’re going to win more than 40 games--many more. If the Jays play at the mean rate of these teams, .433 for the remainder of the season, they end up 66-96. They should be better than that, though, especially if you account for some bad luck as measured by run differential through these first 10 games (seven of their nine losses have been by only one or two runs; in the consolation Pythagorean League, they should be 3-7). I'm going to say they go 73-89 and bring the Alex Anthopoulos/bat-flip/Superman mini-era to a sobering end. Casey Stengel was still there at the end of the Mets’ 1962 season. John Gibbons of the 2017 Blue Jays won’t be.

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