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April 18, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Sizzling Starts

by Jay Jaffe

The Dodgers, who bolted out of the gate by winning nine of their first 10 games, are off to the hottest start in the majors. They're not exactly steamrolling opponents; five of those wins were by a single run, including a pair of walk-off wins on Friday and Sunday. The offense, while ranking second in the league in scoring at 5.0 runs per game through Monday, is essentially Matt Kemp (.487/.523/1.026 with six homers), Andre Ethier (.289/.372/.658 with three homers), and the Seven Dwarves, since the rest of the team is hitting a combined .209/.308/.261 with one homer. There's Juan Uribe as Porky, A.J. Ellis as Walky, Dee Gordon as Swipey (as in bases), James Loney as Stealey (as in the Dodgers' money)… and so on.

Forecast for an un-juggernaut-like 78 wins by PECOTA, the Dodgers were helped by the fact that the two teams they played, the Padres and Pirates, were coming off 71- and 72-win seasons, respectively. Even with the hot start, their Playoff Odds sat at just 15.9 percent through Monday, just a whisker above those of the Padres, with both teams’ average win totals coming in at 79.4 via our Monte Carlo simulations. Nonetheless, the history of teams that start the season either 9-1 or 10-0 is a rather positive one. Since 1901, 35 teams have done so besides the 2012 Dodgers—six of them at 10-0—with 18 going on to reach the postseason, nine winning the World Series, and only one finishing below .500. Their collective winning percentage was .576, approximately the equivalent of a 93-69 season. Separating the 10-0 teams from the 9-1 ones, the sextet of perfect teams were actually outperformed by those with one blemish, producing a .568 winning percentage, three playoff teams, and one champion, compared to .578 and 15 playoff teams with eight champions. Here's the complete table:

Team

Year

Start

Final W-L

Win Pct

Rank

Postseason

Tigers

1911

9-1

89-65

.578

2

 

Phillies

1915

9-1

90-62

.592

1

NL Pennant

Giants

1918

9-1

71-53

.573

2

 

Reds

1919

9-1

96-44

.686

1

WS Champ

Giants

1923

9-1

95-58

.621

1

NL Pennant

Cubs

1934

9-1

86-65

.570

3

 

Giants

1938

9-1

83-67

.553

3

 

Dodgers

1940

9-1

88-65

.575

2

 

Browns

1944

9-1

89-65

.578

1

AL Pennant

Dodgers

1955

10-0

98-55

.641

1

WS Champ

Braves

1957

9-1

95-59

.617

1

WS Champ

Indians

1959

9-1

89-65

.578

2

 

Pirates

1962

10-0

93-68

.578

4

 

Indians

1966

10-0

81-81

.500

5

 

Orioles

1966

9-1

97-63

.606

1

WS Champ

Tigers

1968

9-1

103-59

.636

1

WS Champ

Cubs

1969

9-1

92-70

.568

2

 

Reds

1980

9-1

89-73

.549

3

 

Dodgers

1981

9-1

63-47

.573

2

WS Champ

A's

1981

10-0

64-45

.587

1

Division Champ

Braves

1982

10-0

89-73

.549

1

Division Champ

Tigers

1984

9-1

104-58

.642

1

WS Champ

Brewers

1987

10-0

91-71

.562

3

 

Yankees

1988

9-1

85-76

.528

5

 

Rangers

1989

9-1

83-79

.512

4

 

Reds

1990

9-1

91-71

.562

1

WS Champ

Blue Jays

1992

9-1

96-66

.593

1

WS Champ

Braves

1994

9-1

68-46

.596

2

 

Orioles

1996

9-1

88-74

.543

2

Wild Card

Indians

2002

9-1

74-88

.457

3

 

Royals

2003

9-1

83-79

.512

3

 

Yankees

2003

9-1

101-61

.623

1

AL Pennant

Giants

2003

9-1

100-61

.621

1

Division Champ

Marlins

2009

9-1

87-75

.537

2

 

Rangers

2011

9-1

96-66

.593

1

AL Pennant

By comparison 103 teams since 1901 have started the year 8-2, with 45 reaching the postseason and 12 winning the World Series. Those teams won at a .564 clip, slightly better than a 91-win team.

Whether they won the World Series or got lost along the way, each of the above teams is worth a story. Space doesn’t allow for that, so what follows is a quick look at a baker's dozen of the most significant hot starters, featuring eventual winners as well as cautionary tales.

1911 Tigers: In the 19th century, hot starts were hardly uncommon, thanks to the uneven distribution of talent; from 1872-1900, teams from the National Association, National League, American Association, and Union Association started 10-0 or 9-1 a combined total of 19 times. But once the National League pared itself to eight teams and went up against the brand new American League, it took 10 years before another team would dart from the gate so quickly. Skippered by Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings and featuring an outfield with fellow Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford, the Tigers got out to a 21-2 record and an eight-game lead. They peaked at 35 games above .500 (59-24) and hung on to first place until August 4, when a 2-6 skid knocked them out for good. The defending world champion Philadelphia A's, who closed on a 52-21 tear and ended up winning the pennant by 13 ½ games, passed them.

1915 Phillies: Members of the National League since 1883, when they were known as the Quakers, the Phillies had never won anything prior to 1915, but that year, they became the first modern NL club to bolt to a 9-1 start. The squad was led by slugger Gavvy Cravath, whose 24 homers topped the circuit for a third straight year, and ace Grover Cleveland Alexander, who won the pitching triple crown with 31 wins, a 1.22 ERA, and 241 strikeouts in the first of three straight 30-win seasons. They won their first eight games and 17 of their first 25, but they couldn't pull away from the league; they slipped out of first place in late May and fell as far as third in late June. On August 19, they were 56-48, tied for first with the Dodgers, but they went 34-14 the rest of the way, winning what would stand as the Phillies' lone pennant until 1950, but falling to the Red Sox in the World Series.

1919 Reds: These Reds, who featured batting champion and future Hall of Famer Edd Roush, and the remarkably contact-oriented Slim Sallee (227 2/3 innings, 21 wins, 24 strikeouts), became the first of these hot starters to win a World Series. Of course, that win was tainted by the fact that eight members of the opposing White Sox consorted with gamblers to fix the series, the infamous Black Sox scandal.

1944 Browns: The perennially hapless Browns—who began life as the Milwaukee Brewers in 1901 before moving to St. Louis—finished with winning records just 10 times in their first 43 seasons. Their .436 winning percentage during that time was 45 points lower than any other AL club, and they were, as Nate Silver put it in It Ain't Over, "the second team in a one-team market."

With stars such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, and Bob Feller among the scores of players serving in the military, the league was in a considerably weakened state. The Yankees, who were also without the likes of Tommy Heinrich, Charlie Keller, Phil Rizzuto, Bill Dickey, and Joe Gordon, were particularly depleted, as were the Sox, who also lost Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio, and, in September, Bobby Doerr. Nate's chapter in It Ain't Over takes up the possibility of what might have happened had those players been available. They weren't, and so the Browns rolled out to a 9-0 start by beating the Tigers, Indians, and White Sox, and while they would fall out of first place by mid-May, they spent most of the summer back in the catbird seat. They came into September at 71-56 with a two-game lead over the Yankees, the Tigers just three back, and the Red Sox 3 ½ back.

The Browns stuck it out in the middle of a four-way scrum, winning 14 of their last 17 games—including a season-ending four-game sweep of the Yankees—while Detroit won "only" 13 of their last 18 to fall short by a game; it was the only pennant they would ever win. They fell to the Cardinals, with whom they shared Sportsman Park, in the World Series.

1955 Dodgers: With Jackie Robinson joining forces with Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider, and soon Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, the Dodgers won four pennants from 1947-1953, but they fell to the Yankees each time in the World Series. Their 1954 team, the first under new manager Walter Alston, won 92 games but finished second to the Giants. Next year finally arrived in 1955, as the Dodgers rolled to a 10-0 start, and were up 9 ½ games by May 10, when they were 22-2. By June 11, when they were 42-12, the lead was in double digits, and it never fell below 10 games; they won the league by 13 ½. They would go on to defeat the Yankees in a thrilling World Series capped by Johnny Podres' shutout in Game Seven, bringing the franchise its only Brooklyn-era championship.

1962 Pirates: Two years removed from Bill Mazeroski's World Series-winning home run, the Pirates ran up a 10-0 record by beating up on the league's newest patsies, the expansion Mets; they trounced them five times in their first 10 games before falling to them in their 11th, giving New York its first win in franchise history. The Pirates held onto a share of first place until late April, when a 1-10 skid knocked them back to .500. While they would claw their way to 2 ½ back in late July, they ultimately finished 7 ½ out and in fourth place—the first modern 10-0 team not to make the postseason. While the Bucs had the league's best run prevention and won 93 games, they went 16-2 against the Mets and 13-5 against the league's other expansion team, the Houston Colt .45s, but they went just 64-61 against the rest of the NL.

1966 Indians: After finishing above .500 12 times from 1947-1959, a span during which they were the AL's second-best team behind the Yankees, the Indians slipped into middle-of-the-pack mediocrity in the 1960s; from 1960 through 1964, they won between 76 and 80 games every season. The 1965 team, which featured the return of prodigal son Rocky Colavito and a rotation fronted by 22-year-old Sudden Sam McDowell and 24-year-old Luis Tiant, won 87 games, so things were looking up when they started the next season 10-0, with Tiant throwing two shutouts and McDowell one. The former would begin the season with three straight whitewashings, while the latter would throw back-to-back one-hitters.

By late May, the team was 27-10, up 4 ½ games on the rest of the league, but Tiant fizzled and was sent to the bullpen, and the offense sputtered at a .237/.297/.360 clip—numbers that were fifth, seventh, and sixth, respectively, in a 10-team league during a pitcher-dominated era. The Indians simply couldn't keep pace with the Orioles, who themselves started the year 9-1—the first time two teams from the same season qualified for this list—and eventually won the pennant by nine games.

1981 Dodgers: With 20-year-old rookie Fernando Valenzuela pitching an Opening Day shutout and allowing just one run across two other complete-game starts, the Dodgers began the season 9-1. Supported by a nucleus that had already taken the team to consecutive pennants in 1977-1978, LA continued to roll as the phenomenal southpaw posted a 0.50 ERA, four shutouts, and seven complete games across his first eight starts.

The Dodgers were 26-9 as of May 17, and 36-20, 1 ½ games ahead of the Reds, when the seven-week players' strike hit. The decision to declare the division leaders "first-half champions" at that point worked in their favor; they puttered through the second half 27-26 but still finished with the league's best run differential (+94), if not its best record. LA went on to survive the first three-tiered postseason, rallying from 0-2 to beat the Astros in the Division Series, from 1-2 to down the Expos in the NLCS (which was still a best-of five) and from 0-2 to beat the Yankees in a six-game World Series.

1982 Braves: As the manager of the Mets for parts of six seasons, Joe Torre didn't do much streaking (that we know of), let alone winning; from 1977-1981, his teams compiled a .405 winning percentage before he was dismissed following the 1981 season. The Braves, who had gone 50-56 during the strike-torn season and who had posted just one winning record (81-80) over the previous seven, hired Torre, and together they set baseball on its ear.

The Braves became the first major-league team since the 1884 St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association—and the first National League team ever—to go 13-0. Behind 43-year-old Phil Niekro, MVP winner Dale Murphy, and slugging third baseman Bob Horner, they won the NL West, but only after relinquishing first place in August via a 2-19 skid that centered around a 10-game losing streak. They were neck-and-neck with the Dodgers for the last two months of the season, ultimately clinching on the final day thanks only to a three-run homer by Joe Morgan that sent the Giants past the Dodgers. The Braves, who had gone just 38-40 since the All-Star break, were swept by the Cardinals in the NLCS.

1984 Tigers: The ultimate in hot-starting clubs, Sparky Anderson's Tigers started the year 9-0 and ran out to 16-1 and 35-5 records en route to a 104-win season, the high-water mark for any team here. Jack Morris no-hit the White Sox in the season's fourth game. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Kirk Gibson, and the criminally underrated Chet Lemon put together typically excellent seasons, and Willie Hernandez earned Cy Young and MVP honors for an 80-appearance, 140 1/3 inning season out of the bullpen, via 32 saves and a 1.92 ERA. The Tigers would go on to take the World Series from the Padres in five games.

1987 Brewers: Five years removed from back-to-back post-season appearances, with a squad that still featured Harvey's Wallbangers such as Cecil Cooper, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and Jim Gantner, the Brewers got their fans' hopes up for a return to October baseball when they tied the Braves' record with 13 straight wins to start the season. That stretch included Juan Nieves' no-hitter and an Easter Sunday comeback that included a game-tying three-run homer in the ninth inning by Three True Outcomes hero Rob Deer, soon followed by a game-winning two-run shot by current Cubs manager Dale Sveum.

Alas, after rolling to a 20-3 record through May 2, the Brewers proceeded to lose 12 straight games and 18 of 20, knocking them from five games ahead in the AL East to six games back. They would win seven out of eight to trim the lead to three games as of June 4 but never got any closer, and though they won 91 games including eight of their final 11, Milwaukee finished in third place, seven games behind Detroit.

2002 Indians: After eight straight winning seasons and six playoff appearances in a seven-year span following a 41-season drought, the Indians certainly appeared poised to march right back to October. Alas, despite Jim Thome's career-high 52 homers, they not only fell short, but they also became the first team to finish under .500 after such a hot start thanks to a staff ERA of 4.91 and an uncharacteristically impotent offense that scored "only" 4.56 runs per game, the franchise's lowest mark since 1992. Despite such dubious distinctions, this was also the club that traded Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to the Expos in late June in exchange for Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Lee Stevens, kicking off a rebuilding effort that culminated in their 2007 ALCS loss to the Red Sox.

2003 Royals: The franchise's one winning season since 1994 started with a bang, but like the career of Rookie of the Year shortstop Angel Berroa (.287/.338/.451 for this club), it tailed off rather alarmingly. The Royals won their first nine games and 16 of their first 19, opening up a 5 ½ game lead on the rest of the AL Central, but it was all downhill from there, as they went 66-76 after April 24—which is still better than you'd expect from a team that called Darrell May its ace.

Baseball is a game of streaks and slumps, and as you can see from the above selection, a strong showing through the season's first 10 games doesn't guarantee a team anything. Still, jumping out to a 9-1 or 10-0 start does suggest a team will spend the season in the thick of a playoff race, which is a whole lot better than most people thought the Dodgers would manage.

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

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