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Baseball Hot and Cold Starts

   by Jim Feist - 05/11/2010

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? Don't start making World Series reservations just yet. One year ago this week the eventual champion NY Yankees were 15-17. Yes, that's right, they had a terrible start, before going on a 16-4 run on the way to another pennant. Two years ago the 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 2007 World Series champion Phillies were 11-11, looking up at the Marlins and Mets in the NL East. The best record in baseball at the end of April 2007 was (sorry, Cub fans), the Cubbies. They did make the playoffs, but didn't come close to sniffing a rare World Series berth. One year ago the first place AL teams were the Blue Jays, Tigers and Rangers. None made the playoffs. So don't panic if your team is stumbling and don't start thinking about printing playoff tickets if your team started 17-10, like the 2010 Padres. The biggest flops have been the Red Sox, Dodgers and Angels, though Boston has been hurt by injuries. Remember that three years ago the Phillies started 1-7 and ended up as NL East champs, while 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. Just five 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. 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 are in 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. A year ago the Red Sox quietly turned things around after a poor start, winning seven in a row and eventually made the playoffs. The Padres have been the big surprise in the NL, with an improved offense while ranking second in pitching. However, consistency over the long haul is the key. History is the best teacher. Look back five 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. 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. Sometimes kid pitchers can come up from the minors and dazzle, such as we saw two years ago with Edinson Volquez (Reds) and Tim Lincecum (Giants). Of course, three years ago Fausto Carmona of the Indians dazzled, but has struggled (often overvalued) since. 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 in Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano to a World Series title, while the Rays did something similar in 2008. 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 May!

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