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April 10, 2006

Prospectus Today

Simmer. Down. Now.

by Joe Sheehan

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So, this showed up in my inbox Sunday morning:

How about a Brewers/Tigers article before Chris Shelton loses his Chuck Norris-esque aura?

-D.

My initial reaction was to say, "no." Then I thought about it, and figured, "sure, why not."

But this isn't the article D is looking for. No, I'm not going to write about the young and exciting Central division teams making a big statement in the season's first week. This isn't going to follow the script of overreacting to five or six baseball games.

No, D, I'm going to use your e-mail to make the most important point I can make on April 10: everyone, calm the hell down. We've watched about 4% of the season, and if the events of the last week had happened in the middle of June, no one would be wasting electrons on the greatness of the Brewers and Tigers just because they'd put together five-game winning streaks against weak competition. We'd have perspective, and in the first week of the season, no matter how many times we go through this exercise, perspective is perpetually lost.

Six games are completely meaningless in the course of the baseball season, both in the sense of "impact on the standings" and "something you can glean information from." Two years ago, the Tigers themselves were 5-1 on almost this very date, on their way to a 72-90 season. Brewers fans should never, ever be overly excited about a hot start, because the 1987 Brewers may hold the record for worst use of a season-opening winning streak. They started the season 13-0, a stretch that included a Juan Nieves no-hitter. Less than a month later, they lost 12 games in a row, and they slipped under .500 before the All-Star break, eventually finishing as the third team in a great two-team race in the AL East.

Just look at last season for examples of how little we know after three or even six weeks. The Yankees were 11-19 in early May, choking on the Orioles' (22-11!) dust. They only managed to finish 21 games clear of the Birds. The Indians were one of the worst teams in the AL last April; they may have been the best in the five months that followed. The Astros were 15-30 on May 24, and they didn't clear .500 for good until after the All-Star break. You may recall watching them fairly deep into last October.

I think the overreaction to the season's first week, like the emphasis on the postseason and the persistence in connecting performance to character, is another one of those NFL memes that has poisoned baseball. In football, there are no small samples: with just 16 games on the schedule, every one has a dramatic impact on a team's chance to make the playoffs. And after every football game, there's a week to discuss who did what to whom, who's great for now and who's lousy and what coach deserves to be fired. Individual games have more meaning, and then they're treated as having that much more meaning, until you can't tell the difference between ability and variance.

Baseball isn't like that at all. Individual games are tiny fractions of a long, long season, and that long season is sometimes not even enough time for the variance to wash out. It's beautiful that baseball is back, that we get to watch these great players every day for six months, get to watch all of these stories unfold. But we have to let them unfold. We can't be so eager for a plotline, an event, something exciting, that we force the issue with the first team to have a five-game winning streak.

In the specific cases of the Brewers and Tigers, I think the rush to judgment is even more damning, because it's fairly easy to see that both teams were the beneficiaries of context. The Brewers opened with a six-game homestand against two teams who many feel are among the five worst in the NL. I certainly agree on the Pirates, and although I'm bullish on the Diamondbacks, that's predicated on some roster changes during the season. The Tigers? The Tigers spent the week on the road, of course, but they faced 21 pitchers in the season's first week, and maybe six of those are legitimate major leaguers. Maybe two of them are comfortably above-average. The clips of them hitting lots of homers were entertaining, to be sure, but not particularly meaningful when you consider that guy like Joe Mays and R.A. Dickey were the victims.

As far as Chris Shelton goes, his .583/.615/1.458 week certainly jumps off the page, but that's because it also shows up as his season line. If he does this in June--or perhaps, as he did in two separate weeks late last June and just after All-Star break--he'd get a few mentions on "Baseball Tonight" rather than being the lead story.

This happens every year; Clay Davenport put together some lists of the league leaders in Equivalent Average on the past few April 15ths, and they're fairly entertaining. Sure, we see stars such as Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds, as well as players who did go on to have breakout seasons such as Brian Roberts last year and Adrian Beltre in 2004. But the most common names are, well, the most common players. Here are the lists from April 15, 2005:

                 EqA
Brian Roberts   .420
Jacque Jones    .390
Dmitri Young    .385
Hideki Matsui   .358
Ichiro Suzuki   .347
Eric Hinske     .344
Brandon Inge    .339
Aubrey Huff     .332
Orlando Cabrera .330
Mark Kotsay     .327

Edgardo Alfonzo .439
Joe Randa       .434
Jeff Kent       .419
Xavier Nady     .400
Pat Burrell     .384
Vinny Castilla  .380
Chipper Jones   .379
Brian Giles     .378
Derrek Lee      .374
Craig Biggio    .363

Clay adds, "Despite the head start, 27 of the 60 players [from the 2003-05 lists] failed to match their previous year's EqA."

Chris Shelton may be this year's Derrek Lee. I certainly think he's a terrific hitter and I've written positive things about him since he was in the Pirates' system. But 20-odd plate appearances in April don't add very much to the information pool, any more than a couple of five-game winning streaks scream "contention" for two teams likely a year away from being factors.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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