The importance of a fast start

When I look at the early portion of the Reds schedule, it strikes me as rather difficult. The Reds open with nine straight against the Angels, Nationals and Cardinals, which will provide a test immediately. By May 1st the Reds will have tacked on additional series with the Nats and Cards, plus three with the Phillies. The Phillies are quicksand; since 2004 the Reds are 21-44 against them (playoff debacle included).

With that in mind I wondered just how important getting off to a good start is in baseball. I looked at data from the 2000 season onwards to see how playoff teams have fared through the month of April. 106 teams have made the playoffs in that period, and 80 of them were no worse than .500 by the close of April (75.5%). Taking things a step further, 21 of 26 World Series participants in that span have been .500 or better (80.8%), and 11 of 13 World Series winners (84.6%).

Getting off to a rough start wouldn’t eliminate the Reds, but it would certainly dim their chances. Here are a few exceptions to the rule:

Oakland, 2001:

The Athletics stumbled to an 8-17 start in April and were only 38-41 by the end of June. Then the light switch flipped on and they went a blistering 64-19 (.771) the rest of the way. The fun included winning streaks of five (2x), six (2x), seven, nine and 11 games. They won 102 games and amazingly had to settle for a wild card due to the Mariners winning 116.

Florida, 2003:

The Marlins removed themselves from division contention early by falling a double digit number of games behind by mid-May. At the end of May they were 26-31. They went 20 over .500 in the last three months to snatch the wild card, and eventually the World Series. The Marlins rotation that year featured among others, walking injury Carl Pavano, Dontrelle Willis back when he was good, and the long forgotten Mark Redman. Redman somehow managed to win 14 games that season despite a 10 year career that saw him keep his ERA below 4.21 a single time.

Houston, 2005:

Astros fans currently swimming in a sea of woe must fondly remember the period from 1998 to 2005, when they could support the flagship team of the NL Central. The way this edition of the Astros started was putrid though. At one point they were 15-30 and had won two road games (2-21). Astonishingly they went 34-24 on the road the rest of the way. They finished 11 games behind the Cardinals, but 89 wins was good enough for the wild card. They disposed of the Cardinals and Braves on the way to the World Series, where their run ended against the White Sox.

Oakland, 2012:

The most recent example of a team recovering from a shaky April is notable both for Oakland’s strong play in the second half of the season and the Texas Rangers capitulation. Oakland finished April 11-13 and at the end of June were 5 games under .500, 13 games behind first place Texas. From then on they went 57-26 (.687). Needing to sweep Texas at home in their final series of the season to win the division, they did just that.

I would love for the Reds to blitz the competition for a three month period like some of these teams have done, but that rarely happens. I’d be fine with the Reds simply playing respectable baseball to open the season until the schedule lightens. That would keep them afloat and lessen some of the fan hissing that accompanies slow starts.

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