Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Chin Music: Bring Your Green Hat

A handful of teams are doing all kinds of streaking this April. With the help Jason Bay’s three-run ninth inning homerun on Monday night, the Boston Red Sox won their eleventh straight game (after a 2-6 start, mind you). The Sox swept doubleheaders, won 16-11 pitchers’ duels and won games on the backs of stolen bases and a corps of just-called-up rookie relievers.

Conversely, by the end of the first inning on Monday night, the Marlins were well on their way to their eighth consecutive loss at the hands of John Maine and his 7.47 ERA.

We’ve seen a string of winning and losing streaks this April. The Marlins have been on both sides of the spectrum; first by winning eight in a row and now by losing eight in a row. Even the Dodgers --in typical west coast fashion—have quietly snuck in an eight game winning streak. It’s always nice to get off to a hot start, but what does it mean for the long run? You can probably guess the answer: nothing. History tells us that an April win streak really doesn’t predict anything come September and October.

Since 1900, the longest winning streak to start a season is thirteen, done twice: by the Joe Torre-managed Atlanta Braves in 1982 and by the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers (back when they played in the American League). The Braves ended up in the NLCS back in 1982, but were quickly swept by St. Louis. The Brewers? They finished third in the AL East with a 91-71 record.

Is it nice to get off to a hot start? Surely. But teams are much better off streaking late than streaking earlier. Take, for instance, the 2002 Oakland A’s who won twenty straight in late August and landed feet first in the playoffs or the 2004 Red Sox, who went 24-4 from early August to early September.

Now let’s revisit the Marlins’ latest streak, the losing streak over the last week or so. Their loss on Monday night puts their losing streak at the longest on this young season, surpassing Washington’s 0-7 start. While Washington’s 0-7 start is, well, bad, the 1988 Baltimore Orioles got off to the worst start in Major League history: 0-21 (they didn’t even take Cal Ripken out of the lineup even though he was only hitting .211 through those 21 games).

While hot April starts and April winning streaks don’t necessarily mean success over the course of the season, terrible starts generally do correlate with bad seasons. After all, it’s a lot easier to lose than it is to win. The 1988 Orioles finished 54-107. The 2003 Detroit Tigers started 0-9 and 2-19 before famously avoiding a 120-loss season by winning five of their last six games to finish 43-119. The 2009 Nationals sit at 4-14 and show no semblance of breaking the trend set by the Baltimores and Detroits of the past. What about the Marlins, Red Sox, and Dodgers? Only time will tell, but all three could very well make the playoffs. It may be that none of the three make the postseason; by August it might be clear that while it seemed like a great idea to go streaking back in April, it may just leave them (and everyone they know) embarrassed and with nothing left to do but to wonder if KFC is still open.

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