April 5, 2011

Percentages And Perception

Several years ago, I read a study* that claimed how a team did in its first three games had a correlation (or could be predicted with a far greater degree of certainty than you would expect) to its final standing at the end of the season.

* - I am very annoyed, because I cannot find that article now.

I know that doesn't seem possible -- how could a team's W-L record in the first three games of a 162-game schedule be predictive of anything? (Could we do that with a player's stats? Over the last few seasons, the AL leader in plate appearances has had roughly 740 PA. The equivalent of 3:162 to 740 PA is 14 trips to the plate.)

Nevertheless, the data leads us in that direction. Beyond The Box Score says that of the 163 teams since 1900 that began a season 0-3, only seven made it to the World Series (4.29%). Twenty-eight teams finished in first or second place (17%). (Note, however, that for roughly two-thirds of the years under consideration (70 of 111), only one team from each eight-team league (10-team leagues for most of the 1960s) made the playoffs.)

Those seven pennant-winning teams:
1914 Athletics    99-53  Lost World Series 
1914 Braves       94-59  Won World Series 
1941 Dodgers     100-54  Lost World Series 
1973 Athletics    94-68  Won World Series
1983 Phillies     90-72  Lost World Series
1985 Cardinals   101-61  Lost World Series
1998 Yankees     114-48  Won World Series
Since 1900, 44 of the 166 teams that won their first three games -- as the Orioles (now 4-0) have done this season -- played in the World Series (28%) and 76 finished in first or second place (48%).

Another factoid making the round yesterday was that of the 80 teams to have qualified for the playoffs in the last 10 years, only three (3.75%) began the year by losing their first three games. By contrast, two-thirds of all playoff teams from 2000-2010 started the year 3-0 or 2-1.

I added up the teams since divisional play began in 1969, and counted 13 of 220 playoff teams (5.9%) began the season 0-3:
1969 Twins        - Lost ALCS
1973 Athletics    - Won World Series
1979 Reds         - Lost NLCS
1983 White Sox    - Lost ALCS
1983 Phillies     - Lost World Series
1985 Cardinals    - Lost World Series
1995 Reds         - Lost NLCS
1996 Cleveland    - Lost ALDS
1998 Yankees      - Won World Series
1999 Diamondbacks - Lost NLDS
2001 Cardinals    - Lost NLDS
2003 Atlanta      - Lost NLDS
2007 Phillies     - Lost NLDS
As long as the 1998 Yankees are being used as a reference point, I'll note that they had bad little patches in every month: April (1-4 to start the season), May (2-3), June (1-4), July (1-4), August (2-6), and September (4-8).

The 2001 Mariners went 4-7 in mid-June and 0-4 in mid-September on their way to a 116-46 finish. ... The 1906 Cubs had a 116-36 record -- and went 3-5 in mid-April (which left them with a 6-6 record, in 5th place in the NL) and 2-4 in mid-July.

And if you think isolating four or five games in the middle of a long season is silly ... well, that's my point.

The Red Sox still have a very good chance of finishing first or second in the East. Little losing streaks happen. It's up to you how much you want to worry about them.


Bill said...

A playoff team has a roughly 60% chance of beating a random opponent. So the chances of a playoff team dropping three straight to open the season (all other factors aside) are 40% cubed, or 6.4% (the odds of a lousy .400 team dropping three straight are 21.6%).

The individual stats are going to be out of line, just because of regression. We expect several players to hit home runs on opening day, but no one to keep that 162HR pace.

allan said...

Red Sox Rough Starts:

0-3: 1901, 1906, 1925, 1931, 1933, 1948, 1952, 1987, 2011

0-4: 1923, 1932, 1977, 1989

0-5: 1966, 1996

0-6: 1905, 1927

0-8: 1945

laura k said...

Part of me is not surprised that fans are worried, thinking about how so many fans were jumping ship in 2007 - while we were still in first place - when our lead shrank to something you would normally expect in the AL East.

But part of me is absolutely astounded. It's as if no one has watched a baseball season before.

johngoldfine said...

It's not a matter of jumping ship --for me, that could never happen. And it's not a matter of choosing to worry about three losses.

Because during the season--for better or worse, willing or unwilling--part of the emotional coloration of my day, every day, is the state of the Red Sox. To an extent their woes and travails, triumphs and taters, become mine. If they win, love floods my heart. But if it's clean water, darkness, hatred, vitriol, blame, anger all try to cloud my ordinarily sunny, cheery, upbeat nature.


Statistics, history, numbers, reason do not enter into it.

Win=euphoria. Loss=dysphoria.

johngoldfine said...

I like the Joe Sheehan piece, appreciate the perspective, only wish I could actually relax and enjoy his backdoor jabs at doomsayers.

laura k said...

JohnGoldfine, that I get! "This sucks, can we win please?"

Jeremy said...

The two guys that work closest to me are both Yankees fans and asked me yesterday in their own ways if I was worried about the Sox chances this year. All I had to say to shut them up was that there are still ~160 games left and a lot can happen. Just look at the Orioles being in first place, who are higher in the standings than their vaunted Yankees.

At the comment about the Orioles, they both laughed and basically stated that should tell you all you need to know. After that they didn't say anything.

I especially like the Sheehan piece. Good perspective since it reads like the entire season has passed (or that three games that make the entirety of the season thus far mean everything) and if you forget that only 3 games have passed and you want to sing doom and gloom, thats your prerogative but I'm not even close to boarding that ship.

They will have also played the entire season out of their division! Wow, those 3 game seasons are brutal ;)

allan said...

The two guys that work closest to me are both Yankees fans and asked me yesterday in their own ways if I was worried about the Sox chances this year.

"We came back from 0-3 in 2004 when even one loss would end the season. We've got 159 games left here ... Now go get me a doughnut and shut the fuck up."

tim said...

Heh, that article had me for a second.

Sheehan registered in my brain as a good writer, then as I started to read it, my jaw dropped. Pretty sad that I could actually see someone writing something as ridiculous as that. Once I got into the second paragraph, I then noticed the true sarcasm. Oh timmy, so gullible.

Good to know the past but also to know it has no bearing on 2011. e.g. How many teams have come back from an 0-3 CS deficit? Oh right.

laura k said...

Oh timmy, so gullible.

You know it had me for a few mins!

Amy said...

Great piece. Love that sarcasm.

And John---I am like you. I was so nasty feeling all weekend and yesterday, and I realized that those three games were affecting my overall mood. So PLEASE WIN.

dj1480 said...

Couldn't it simply mean that the RS are the second-best team in the AL?

allan said...

I removed the entire Sheehan piece. Here is a snip from it instead:


You can debate many things about the 2011 MLB season, but the only candidate for "biggest disappointment" is the Boston Red Sox. ...

[Francona's] decision to hold back Josh Beckett blew up on him in Texas, as the team is winless on the year without ever having used their former ace. He's shown a lack of conviction in his own choices, never using the same lineup twice, starting a different right fielder in every single game, and dumping his third-place hitter down to the #7 hole after an extended slump. ...

Perhaps the biggest questions surround Carl Crawford. ... It's one thing to play in a park that seats 34,000, as does the current edition of Tropicana Field, but when you have to bring it every night in front of 37,000 at Fenway Park, it makes a tremendous difference. Crawford has yet to get a hit in Fenway ...

Francona's refusal to adjust to his players' changes in ability has cost and will continue to cost the Red Sox wins, and perhaps lead to yet another ruinous season that ends after just 162 games.