I had been thinking about losing streaks to start a season, and Colin's post this morning sent me researching (and then sent Colin researching as he helped me identify the teams listed in this post.)
It seems to me that streaks to start a season might be more meaningful predictors than streaks at any random point within the season. Perhaps not a lot more meaningful, but at least somewhat. For one thing, teams usually put their best foot forward to start the year, throwing their best pitchers and starting the lineup that they have worked all winter to assemble. In addition, this is our first chance to assess the strength of newly-composed teams based upon their results on the field, rather than from theoretical projections based upon the past. Some teams may be on a rebuilding year, but for teams hoping to contend, is a losing streak right out of the gate a worse portent than a similar losing streak at a random point in the year?
I looked at eight teams since 1974 who started the season with a losing streak of at least five games and a winning percentage of at least .520 the prior year. Those teams are the 1976 Dodgers, the 1978 Orioles, the 1984 Brewers, the 1995 Reds, the 1996 Red Sox, the 1997 Cardinals, the 2004 Mariners, and 2008 Tigers. They averaged a winning percentage of .565 in the prior season and .494 in the season starting with the losing streak.
Are we just looking at fluke performers from the previous season who came back to earth the next year? As a group, it doesn't seem so. The Pythagorean winning percentage based upon runs scored and runs allowed by the teams in the previous season was .569, and their average winning percentage over the previous three seasons was .551.
Only one of the eight teams made it to the playoffs in the year beginning with the losing streak, and a few teams took remarkable and unexpected nosedives. Let's look at each of the eight teams individually.
The 2004 Mariners are the worst case scenario. They came in riding a strong four-year run that included the 2001 team that won 116 games, and they had won 93 games in each of the following years. The offensive core of Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Bret Boone, and Ichiro Suzuki collapsed, with only Suzuki having a good year in 2004. Similarly, the starting pitching, led by Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro in previous years, struggled in 2004. The 2004 season was no fluke after four good years; rather, it was the beginning of seven mostly lean years for the Mariners franchise.
The 1995 Reds are the counterpoint. Their six-game losing streak to start the year was merely a speed bump on the way to victory. They were leading their division with a .579 winning percentage when the strike ended play in 1994, and they picked right back up where they left off in 1995. The Reds finished first in the NL Central, outdistancing the Astros by nine games and finishing with a .590 winning percentage.
The 1976 Dodgers and 1978 Orioles are the other two teams to overcome their losing streaks to post good campaigns, though both fell short of the playoffs. The Dodgers looked like a strong team coming into 1976. They had averaged 95 wins the previous three years and had won the pennant in 1974. They managed to post 92 victories in 1976, but this put them 10 games behind the Big Red Machine in Walter Alston's final season at the helm.
The Orioles also looked strong coming into 1978, having won 97 games under Earl Weaver the previous year. Here their previous year's record may overstate the quality of the team as their Pythagorean winning percentage in 1977 was only .548, and their previous three year's winning percentage was .571. The Orioles posted a decent 90-71 record in 1978 but fell nine games behind the Yankees for fourth place in the division.
The 1996 Red Sox are the only other one of the eight to post a winning record in season that started with a losing streak. Boston had won the division in 1995 with a .597 winning percentage, but they were not yet the juggernaut that the Red Sox teams of the following decade would be. The Red Sox record from 1993-95 was only 220-201. They finished the 1996 season in third place behind the Yankees and Orioles, posting an 85-77 record.
Three more teams slid to sub-par finishes. The 2008 Tigers ended the year in last place with a 74-88 record after starting with seven losses. They were coming off a 2006 World Series appearance and a decent 88 wins in 2007.
The 1996 Cardinals had won their division in their first season under Tony LaRussa with an 88-74 mark. In 1997, they stumbled out of the gate to post six straight losses. They finished in fourth place, 73-89 and 11 games back of the Astros.
The 1984 Brewers also seemed to be a strong team coming into the year. They had posted the best record in the division in 1981 and gone to a Game Seven with St. Louis in the 1982 World Series. They had slipped a little in 1983, finishing 85-77, but most of the core of the 1982 team was intact, particularly on the hitting side. Returning players including Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, Paul Molitor, Ben Oglivie, Jim Gantner, Ted Simmons (albeit at designated hitter rather than catcher), Mike Caldwell, and Rollie Fingers. Molitor got hurt and missed most of the year, and Simmons and Cooper slumped, and the Brewers slid all the way to last place among the seven teams in the East division. The Brewers remained a fixture near the bottom of their divisions for the next two decades.
As this goes to press, the Red Sox are fighting late in a 0-0 tie for their first win of 2011, and the Rays are just underway in Chicago. Are either of them flawed shadows of their former winning selves? I don't know, but history bears a cautionary tale here for the 2011 Rays and Red Sox, even if there's not enough of a sample to make a firm conclusion.