Every Rays fan seeking comfort for their team’s rough start have heard the following refrain several times: “It’s only April and it’s a long season. The Rays are better than this and they’ll be fine.” At cliche as that sounds, I agree with that, but that’s not what this article is about. After I encouraged patience and calmness with this Rays team on Twitter, the great (infamous?) @sternfan10 challenged me to find the last 90-win team that started 4-9 or worse. The answer was pretty obvious: the 2011 Red Sox, who started 3-10, and the 2012 Angels and 2010 Red Sox also started 4-9 and finished with 89 wins. But that was the only the tip of the iceberg of the research that Sternfan’s question inspired me to do.
Using Baseball-Reference’s Streak Finder, I looked at the first 13 games of the season for each team in the history of baseball and searched specifically for teams that started 4-9 or worse. Thirteen teams that started 4-9 or worse went on to win 90 games, with the most notable teams being the 1951 Giants, that made the World Series thanks to the Shot Heard ‘Round the World, and the 1935 Tigers, 1979 Pirates, and the 1991 Twins, all of whom went on to win the World Series. Still, 13 teams out of who knows how many is not very good odds. One big thing to note is that 8 of the 13 and 7 of the 10 who started exactly 4-9 finished in the top 4 in their league in ERA, something that the Rays are sure to do, apparently showing that great pitching makes it much easier for teams to overcome early-season struggles. Correlation doesn’t imply causation and we know that great pitching quite often happens on great teams, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that just because the Rays have started out so poorly doesn’t mean they can’t be a great team. The 1976 Dodgers in fact, followed the same exact pattern as the Rays will try to follow, finishing second in the NL in ERA while finishing just 8th out of 12 NL teams in OPS. The Rays starting off 4-9 is no reason at all for anyone to give up on them, and in fact their pitching makes them more likely to overcome this.
How much does a 4-9 start really mean? In an attempt to ascertain that, I looked at the final record of all teams who started off 4-9, eliminating worse teams because just two teams that went 3-10 won 90 games and only one that was worse than that went anywhere (the 1951 Giants, who started 2-11). Would the combined record of all teams that started 4-9 be above or below .500 and would the result be statistically significant? Considering 4-9 is a horrific.308 winning percentage and some of these teams that started that badly had to simply be terrible teams, it’s not surprising at all that the mean winning percentage of the 174 teams in MLB history since 1903 that have started 4-9 is .453, a 73-win pace over 162 games, and considering the enormous sample size, it’s an impossibility that the true winning percentage of those teams should have been .500. Just 47 of the 174 teams, 27%, finished at .500 or above, and just 15, 8.6%, won 90 or more games. Just based on that, the Rays’ chances look pretty bleak- but that brings us back to the point we just made that some of the teams who started 4-9 were really terrible teams. A .308 winning percentage is a 112-loss pace, and three teams were actually worse than that, with 17 teams managing a .352 winning percentage or less (105-loss pace). The Rays are playing execrably right now, but we know that they’re not close to that bad.
This season, we can probably say with 95% probability that the Rays will win somewhere from 75 to 95 games. That’s a pretty big range, but restricting our sample to that makes this all make a lot more sense. The mean of that 72-team sample is over .500 at .511, with 41 of the 72 teams (57%) winning more than half their games and 10 of 72 (14%) winning 90 or more. Most of those teams didn’t have anything like the Rays’ pitching, so for argument’s sake let’s say that the Rays now have a 75% chance of finishing above .500 and a 25% chance of winning 90 games. How far is that from where the Rays were at the beginning of the season? It’s certainly worse, but not by all that much. Half of baseball would give up a lot to have odds like that.
The Rays’ tough start is definitely going to hurt them and they might be kicking themselves later in the season for beginning the year so badly. But we’re still talking about a very good team here, and certainly one with the ability to be every bit as good as we thought they would be entering the season. Only time will tell what happens with this team, but the talent is still right there and the chances of the Rays reaching their potential are diminished but not so significantly. Don’t get of yourself thinking that this 4-9 start is any indication that 2013 will be the year that the Rays’ magical five-year run comes to an end and they have that below-.500 season that their naysayers have been predicting for them time after time.