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Hot And Cold Starts

   by Jim Feist - 04/24/2009

More than any other sport, baseball is a game of patience. It's not how you start, but where you finish, and with a 162-game regular season, there is a LOT of baseball left. Did your team get off to a bad start? Well don't panic. There is plenty of time to make adjustments and turn things around. Did your team get off to a hot start? Well don't start making World Series reservations just yet.
One year ago this week the eventual AL champion Tampa Bay Rays were 10-11, second to last in the AL East, looking up at three teams (Boston, NY, Baltimore) they would soon overtake. The eventual World Series champion Philies were 11-11, looking up at the Marlins and Mets in the NL East. The best record in baseball at the end of April was (sorry, Cub fans), the Cubbies. They did make the playoffs, but didn't come close to sniffing a rare World Series berth.
Two years ago the eventual NL Champion Rockies were 10-16, last place in the NL West at the end of April, and 45-46 at the All Star break. Remember that three years ago the eventual champion Cardinals didn't light the world on fire during a 17-12 start. Just four years ago the Houston Astros started 8-13 and eventually stood at 15-30! They ended up winning the 2005 NL pennant. In 2003, the Florida Marlins started 19-29 and ended up winning the World Series. In 2002, the Angels started 6-14 and wound up winning their first World Series.
So don't panic if your team is stumbling, and don't start thinking about printing playoff tickets if your team started 11-5, like the 2009 Cardinals, Blue Jays and Marlins. A year ago the low budget Marlins were sitting in first place, like they are now. The biggest flops have been the Rays, Indians and Angels, though LA has been devastated by injuries and tragedy. Remember that two years ago the Phillies started 1-7 and ended up as NL East champs.
Oakland GM Billy Beane once said you spend the first third of the season seeing what you have and evaluating your team. The middle third trying to acquire pieces to fill weak spots, and the final third sitting back and watching the team make a run at the postseason -- or not. We have just started the first third of the season and there's a long way to go. General Managers are in the process of evaluating what they have.
In the same way GMs need patience when analyzing baseball, so do handicappers. The Red Sox quietly began to turn things around after that dreadful start, winning seven in a row. Tim Wakefield started the roll with a much needed complete game win at Oakland, one that saved the bullpen, which was in tatters after an extra inning game the night before. Last week Wakefield became the oldest pitcher (at 42 years, 263 days) to throw two consecutive complete games since Charlie Hough (44 years, 169 days) in 1992.
The Marlins have been the big surprise in the NL, third in runs scored, third in stolen bases and third in team ERA. However, consistency over the long haul is the key. Note that the young Marlins are ranked 14th in the NL in quality starts and just called up Burke Badenhop from Triple A New Orleans to replace starter Andrew Miller, who is on the 15-day disabled list. Pitching depth and quality starts go a long way to stabilizing a staff and preventing long slides.
History is the best teacher. Look back just four years ago for some comparisons. In April of 2005, the Orioles and Blue Jays were atop the American League East with the Red Sox and Yankees looking up at them. In the National League, the Dodgers had a blistering 11-2 start while no other team in the NL West had a winning record. When the season ended, a very different picture emerged. LA was 71-91 in fourth place, a bevy of injuries and a lack of hitting derailed their once promising season. Meanwhile, in April in the NL Central the eventual NL champion Astros were looking up at the Cubs, Reds and Cardinals.
Surprises will emerge over a long season and offer smart bettors good value for their wagering dollar, even with individual players. After going 17-8 and 16-8 from 2004-05, Cardinals lefty Mark Mulder was expected to have a strong 2006 season. He was installed as a favorite often on such a good team, yet struggled badly with a 6-7 record and a 7.14 ERA. Arm trouble eventually put him on the shelf. Pitchers are more susceptible to injuries than any other professional athletes and remember that betting numbers are made based on current and past performance. It can take a while before oddsmakers catch on to a struggling or injured pitcher.
Other times, kid pitchers can come up from the minors and dazzle, such as we saw a year ago with Edinson Volquez (Reds) and Tim Lincecum (Giants). Of course, two years ago Fausto Carmona of the Indians dazzled, but has struggled (and often overvalued) since. Bettors are keeping a close eye on Cleveland lefty Cliff Lee, who won the Cy Young in 2008 but has been up and down so far.
Sustaining a surprise start requires talent, depth, line-up balance and good health. A crop of talented young players from the farm system can be a huge plus. In 2003, the Florida Marlins road a slew of hot young arms, Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, to a World Series title, while the Rays did something similar last summer. Remember in 2003 the Royals started 17-4, the Mariners started 40-18 and the Diamondbacks were 52-42 at the All Star break. None made the playoffs. Those examples give hope to those teams that are off to struggling starts, and should provide caution to teams that are in first place. After all, it's only April!

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