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Baseball Hot and Cold Starts

   by Jim Feist - 05/06/2014

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.
Boston won the World Series last season but has stumbled in 2014. Time to write them off? Not yet. Perhaps they overachieved last season in so many areas, but they aren’t as bad as they’ve looked so far this season. There is plenty of talent to turn things around, especially at the minor leagues, if needed.
Milwaukee has been the big story in April, playing first-place baseball after a bad 2013 season losing 88 games. The biggest improvement has been the pitching staff, Top 5 in team ERA after being in the middle of the pack last season.
But hot starts don’t guarantee anything. A year ago in June the Dodgers were sitting in last place with a 29-38 record, looking up at four other teams. By the time October rolled around they were in first place, 11-game ahead of Arizona!
The Giants have won two of the last four World Series but have been roughly a .500 thus far. No matter. Two years ago they were also just a .500 team, trailing the Dodgers the first week of May in 2012.
Three years ago this week Texas was a .500 team sitting in third place in AL West, but wound up as AL Champs in October. Four years ago the Giants were a mediocre 18-15 and went on to win the World Series. Five 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.
Six 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? Texas and Arizona were leading in both West divisions and ended up losing out the division titles to Oakland and the Dodgers.
Two years ago this week four of the division leading 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. The biggest flops have been the Pirates, Nationals, Angels and Red Sox. But remember that a few 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.
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. 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 has been traded a number of times, Strasburg is back after missing time rehabbing, while Lincecum is dealing with decreased velocity in inconsistency, no longer the young phenom. 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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