You probably heard that the Orioles have started the season 7-0. This is notable for several reasons. First, this is the first time the O’s have gone 7-0 to start the season, though the team’s progenitor, the St. Louis Browns (nee Milwaukee Brewers), went 9-0 to start its lone pennant-winning season of 1944. Second, it’s an uncommon accomplishment. In the 116 seasons since the modern era began in 1901, this is only the 27th time a team’s started a season 7-0. Third, it’s a harbinger of success, as the 26 teams before this year that started 7-0 all finished at .500 or better, with 11 going to the postseason and five winning the World Series. Fourth, the Orioles were, well, not expected to be really good.
As of this morning, BP’s Playoff Odds simulator projects the Orioles to finish 79-83. That’s not great, but this being the contemporary American League East, a swing of six games would put them in first. So the Orioles could be an okay team, or they could be a mediocre team. The upside, of course, would be the team’s third postseason trip in the past five years. Based on historical precedent, what’s the downside?
Of the 26 teams to start 7-0 before the Orioles, here are the ones that stand out as the weakest.
5. 1934 Chicago Cubs, 86-65, third place in the National League. One year away from the team’s second-to-last pennant, the Cubs were a lucky club, second in the league in one-run games (22-16), winning four games over its Pythagorean projection. The manager was first baseman Charlie Grimm, who would’ve helped the team by not writing his name into the lineup card; Cubs first basemen, primarily Grimm, were last in the league in batting, on base, and slugging. After winning seven in a row, they flirted with first place for another month and a half, and were tied for first on June 3 before finishing eight games behind St. Louis and six behind New York.
4. 1962 Pittsburgh Pirates, 93-68, fourth place in the National League. They finished nine games ahead of St. Louis, which also started 7-0 in 1962, but their Pythagorean record was three games worse, as they were aided by a 32-22 record in one-run games, the second-highest winning percentage in the league. The Giants, Dodgers, and Reds all played .600 or better ball this season. Nobody else was very close. The Pirates won 10 in row to start the season but were out of first place for good by the end of April.
3. 1982 Chicago White Sox, 87-75, third place in the American League West. You could make a case that this team’s record was a testament to manager Tony LaRussa in his third full year at the helm. The best hitter was 35 year old Tom Paciorek (.303 TAv). The best pitcher was LaMarr Hoyt (2.95 DRA WARP) with a 2.6 K/W ratio. The second best pitcher was 39 year old Jerry Koosman (1.91 DRA WARP) who shuttled between starting and relieving. The closer, rookie Salome Barojas, had 21 saves, 60% of his career total, with a 4.09 FIP, 1.33 WHIP, 3.9 walks per nine innings, and a 1.2 K/W ratio. After winning eight straight, the team stayed around first place until the end of May, but was in third place in early June.
2. 2003 Kansas City Royals, 83-79, third place in the American League Central. Tony Pena was Manager of the Year as the team started 9-0 and was still tied for first on August 29, coming off eight straight losing years and a 62-100 record the year before. Of course, they went 58-104 in 2004, the first of three straight 100-loss seasons, and Pena was fired in early 2005. The 2003 squad was outscored (78-84 Pythagorean record, the worst of any team to start 7-0), had only one pitcher (Darrell May) pitch more than 126 innings, and among hitters, only Carlos Beltran (.303) and Mike Sweeney (.295) had a TAv above .281.
1. The 1966 Cleveland Indians, 81-81, fifth place in the American League. If you ever want to kill time, pick a random mid-tier team from the mid-1960s and count the number of players that are good. Or even recognizable. The 1966 Indians had an infield of Joe Azcue at catcher, Fred Whitfield at first, Pedro Gonzalez at second, Larry Brown at short, and Max Alvis at third. The best hitter was Leon Wagner (.288 TAv). The best three pitchers, ranked by DRA WARP, were Sonny Siebert, George Bell, and Steve Hargan (followed by a couple more familiar names, Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant). They were outscored; their Pythagorean won-lost was 79-83. Their manager, Birdie Tebbetts, was fired on August 19. Yet they won their first ten games, lost one, and then won four more. From that point forward, their 67-80 record was percentage points ahead of 65-78 Washington for the worst in the league.
Of course a bad team can go 7-0 over a seven-game stretch. That happens at some point in every season. And there's nothing about the first seven games any more predictive than any other seven. But seven games turns out to be a pretty good head start on mediocrity at worst, and a sign of real talent at best.
As for this year’s Orioles, well, it’s safe to assume that they’ll maintain neither their .877 OPS nor their 2.86 ERA to date. But they’ve also developed, under Buck Showalter a Giants-like proclivity for even-numbered year success, aided by luck: they were 189-135 in 2012 and 2014, including 61-32 in one-run games and 30-8 in extra innings, compared to 166-158 in 2013 and 2015, including 45-57 in one-run games and 14-12 in extra innings. And regardless of what happens going forward, by starting 7-0, the Orioles have accomplished something that the Red Sox, Senators/Twins, and every expansion franchise other than the Royals and Senators/Rangers have never done.
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