I’m going to beat this horse one more time today, and then I promise I’ll let it go for 12 months.
Far too much of the mainstream coverage of baseball in April is–making up a word here–overrreactive. Guys who get off to notably hot or cold starts make the front page of Web sites and the back page of the paper. Teams that win five in a row or lose seven of eight find themselves saying things like, “This is a special group of guys,” or having closed-door meetings to figure out what’s wrong.
It’s not that the first two weeks of the season aren’t potentially meaningful or indicative of what’s to come. Its just that we can’t know on April 18 whether they are. Players and teams perform well above and well below their true level for short stretches all the time. The 2004 Devil Rays went 70-91; in June, though, they ripped off a 12-game winning streak and spent a few weeks around .500. Cory Lidle had his basic Cory Lidle season last year, sucking up 211 innings with an ERA above the league average. Late in the season, though, he threw back-to-back shutouts against two of the worst hitting teams in the league. It happens. We just care more when it makes the guy 2-0, 0.00 than when it leaves him 9-12, 5.01.
We overreact when those things happen to start the season. We’re eager to do analysis, to find meaning in the things we see, to be the one who anticipates the breakout season or the collapse of a dynasty. It’s particularly dangerous when the first two weeks confirm what we suspected in March; the Yankees may win fewer than 90 games and miss the playoffs, but their starting the season 4-8 doesn’t make me right about that. Not yet, anyway.
We know this because we see it every single season. After two weeks last year, you had guys like Ronnie Belliard hitting .446/.492/.589. Belliard would hit pretty much his career norms after that, ending up at .282/.348/.426. Is there any reason to believe that Joe Randa (.385/.478/.769 this morning) won’t do the same? Charles Johnson opened up ’04 on a .379/.486/.828 rush, and still finished the year with a 780 OPS. I don’t think Mike Matheny‘s .333/.361/.576 start means he’s suddenly found the keys to the batter’s box any more than Johnson had.
The comparisons are even more stark with pitchers, who can make headlines with just two outings. Dontrelle Willis has opened the year with back-to-back shutouts. Just a year ago, another young left-hander started his season by not allowing an earned run in his first three starts. No, wait, it was the same one. Willis had an ERA of 0.00 in mid-April. By the end of the season, it was 4.02. Jimmy Gobble, of all people, threw six shutout innings in two of his first three starts, ending April with an ERA of 2.82. At the time, he had six strikeouts and six walks allowed. His ERA at the end of the year? 5.35. Mike Hampton fans (0.82 ERA, 22 IP, 5 BB, 5 SO), you’ve been warned.
This is just as applicable with teams, something that readers in the mid-Atlantic region certainly don’t care to hear. The 8-4 Orioles and 8-4 Nationals make for great copy, but it’s two weeks, and as last year’s Devil Rays demonstrated, 8-4 isn’t even scratching the surface of what a bad team can do in a dozen games. The Yankees, aging and overpaid though they may be, aren’t likely to play .333 ball all season long. (Really, George.)
A year ago, the Orioles were off to a similarly good start at 7-4. That didn’t last, and they fell quickly off the AL East pace. The Cardinals, who led the planet with 105 wins last year, were just 6-7 at this point a year ago. The Twins and White Sox both started the season 8-4. They finished it separated by nine games in the standings.
I’ll say it one last time: Two weeks just doesn’t mean that much in the course of a 26-week baseball season.