Don’t forget: April is a small sample

It’s the best part about April, no? The grass is mowed, the gates are open, and every team starts 0-0. Equal footing. Is your team projected to win 30 games this year? I don’t want to hear it. Squint harder. If Adam Dunn can hit 40 again, if Johan Santana becomes that ace once more, if Pedro Alvarez can tap into that potential we all saw, the playoffs could absolutely happen this year. Players and teams surprise every year, and it’s a joy to see it happen. And if your team is actually projected to play meaningful baseball in September? All the better. Optimism all around.

Well, until the games actually start. April’s quickly turning into May, and quite a few teams are sitting in their division’s cellars, wondering what’s wrong. And while it’s easy to start worrying after only a few weeks, it’s not over yet. Not by a long shot. These first 20 games may be the only sample we have, but remember, it’s still a small one.

This is baseball. This is the game where the Rockies can win 14 out of their last 15 to sneak into the Wild Card in 2007. The 2002 Angels won six of their first 20 on the way to a World Series trophy. Does it really matter how a team plays in the first 12 percent of the year?

In fact, since 1998 (when Major League Baseball expanded to 30 franchises), teams that eventually made the playoffs averaged 11.3 wins over their first 20 games. That’s it! Just 11 and change. The teams that missed the playoffs averaged 9.5 over the same time frame. The difference is basically two games. That’s two cleaner throws or two fewer mistake pitches.

Sure, you have teams like the 2003 Yankees, who went 17-3 to open the year. But on average, playoff teams just fare one game over .500 in their first 20. And if you take out all teams who were sent home after the first round, leaving just the teams who made it at least to their league’s Championship Series, they averaged 11.5 wins over the first 20. Hardly world beaters.

Obviously, a large part of the wild results early on are fueled by uncharacteristically amazing (or terrible) performances, which will regress heavily to the mean in the coming weeks. But how can you make an early judgment, for example, on the San Diego Padres, who played the Dodgers seven times in their first 10? Or the Mariners, who played the A’s seven of their first 11? Over a long season, the quirks of the schedule (mostly) cancel each other out, and with that, we get a clear picture of how strong a team actually is. But when teams have such disparate strengths of schedules, the first 20 days give very little in the form of useful information about team quality.

If you were optimistic before the season, April shouldn’t be enough to change your mind.

And yet, we’re inevitably going to see a cavalcade of knee-jerk reactions from fans and sportswriters alike. No, it’s not time to panic. It’s not time to worry, it’s not time to throw in the towel, and it’s not time to trade everyone. The Angels are going to be fine. So are the Red Sox. Performances will stabilize, scheduling will even out, and all will be back to normal.

If a team is still performing above expectations in the standings when July rolls around, we’ll have a real story to celebrate and analyze. But not yet. It’s still too early.

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11 years ago

So, what if you *weren’t* optimistic before the season? The Twins are currently 5-14 which, using some back the napkin regression works out to about a 73-89 record on the year, which, honestly, feels about right considering how the pitching staff looks right now.

That said, I’m more optimistic that some of fantasy picks are going to turn around at some point (right, Joey Votto?).

Paul E
11 years ago

  Interesting choice there (Twins). Most preseason betting parlors and off-shore sites had them at 73 1/2 wins…..and, unfortunately, I figured with Mauer and Morneau back they were a lock to better that

11 years ago

Not to be a crumdgeon or anything but I believe it’s worth pointing out that there is a difference between starting a season at .500 through 20 games and starting at .350 or worse through 20 games. Your absolutely right that a relatively slow start by a team like the Red Sox is nothing to get worked up over.They are after all only 2.5 games back with 142 to go.

The Angels on the other hand are in a very tenuous situation. Since 1998 55 teams have begun the season with a winning pct. of .350 or worse. Of those 55 teams on 3 made the playoffs (2007 Cubs, 2002 Angels, 2001 A’s). That’s 5% of teams spread over more than a decade. Additional only 13% of all the teams that began the season at .350 or worse finished with a winning record.

I guess my point is that there is a difference between the type of slow start the Red Sox are playing through and the type of slow start the Angels are not playing through. And that difference needs to be addressed. Small sample size or not there is still a difference in outcomes as a result of winning half your games at the start of the season and only winning 35% of your games through the first 20.