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Baseball Hot and Cold Starts

   by Jim Feist - 05/07/2013

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.
The Giants have won two of the last three World Series but have been roughly a .500 thus far, trailing the Diamondbacks and Rockies in their own division. No matter. A year ago they were also just a .500 team, trailing the Dodgers the first week of May in 2012.
Two years ago this week Texas was a .500 team sitting in third place in AL West, but wound up as AL Champs in October. Three years ago the Giants were a mediocre 18-15 and went on to win the World Series. Four years 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.
Five years ago the AL eventual 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.
Look at it another way: So who were the division leaders at this time one year ago? Four of the teams were the Indians, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rays. None ended up winning the division with only St. Louis sneaking into the postseason as a Wild Card. The Dodgers finished 8 games behind the eventual champion Giants despite the big late season trade to acquire more talent, while the Indians finished in fourth place at 68-94…so much for that first-place start!
So don't panic if your team is stumbling and don't start thinking about printing playoff tickets if your team started 18-7, like the 2013 Red Sox. The biggest flops have been the Blue Jays, Angels, Phillies and Dodgers. But remember that six 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.
Eight 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. The Pirates, Rockies, Royals and Red Sox have been the big surprises this season, with improved offenses and pitching. However, consistency over the long haul is the key.
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 the last few years with Edinson Volquez (Reds), Stephen Strasburg (Nationals) and Tim Lincecum (Giants). Things can change quickly, as Volquez is with San Diego this season and Strasburg is back after missing time rehabbing. Even Lincecum is dealing with decreased velocity while not throwing his slider as there are concerns about his health.
Sustaining a surprise start requires talent, depth, line-up balance and good health.
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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