Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint.
That's one of the most well worn phrases in sports. An adage that, as far as anyone can tell, is nearly as old as the game of baseball itself. Come out of the gate hot, like the Red Sox have this year, and you are guaranteed to hear it from all corners.
"You’re talking about 162 games; you’ve got six of them under your belt," said Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy earlier this week. "And they’ve won four out of six which is great, but it’s a very small sample. Doesn’t tell you a lot."
Or does it? Could it be that a team’s performance early in the season tells us more than conventional baseball wisdom suggests? After all, a win counts as much in April as it does in July or September, right? The numbers might surprise you. They surprised me.
In the Red Sox long and storied history, the club has made 11 World Series appearances. In nine of those years the Sox won their home opener — like they did this year. In all 11 World Series seasons the Sox won – or split – their entire opening home stand. Eight of those teams had a winning record at the end of April. Every single one of them was over .500 by the end of May.
And that clear correlation between early season success and postseason appearances isn't just a Boston phenomenon.
Ben Alamar, professor of Sport Management at Menlo College, says that the games being played right now are just as important as the ones that will be played during the pennant race. "They're all similarly important." he said. "What you establish at the beginning of the season is the quality of your team, and you get an understanding of whether you need to make significant improvements."
From a certain way of looking at it, you might even say the early games are more important. Consider this: 90 wins is the number teams usually shoot for to make the playoffs. As it turns out, your record early in the season is a strong indicator of whether or not you’ll get there.
"If you assume that a team is really an average team, then if they are not above .500 by the end of May there's about an 18% chance that they'll get to 90 plus wins," Alamar said. "That number drops to 13 percent at the end of June."
That means there's an 87 percent chance that they won’t get to 90 plus wins. And that likely means no post season. And it makes sense. The later you get into the season, the greater the chance is that your current winning percentage reflects where you will be at the end of the season. If you want to be in the playoff hunt at the end of the year, it’s best to establish a good record early.
So, with the Red Sox off to a 5-2 start you might sense a temptation swelling deep in your bones, to – dare I say it — believe. Don’t panic. Alamar, and the data, suggest that indulging that feeling, even this early in the season, is A-OK.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "At the end of the day we're talking about sports and it's your team winning. Fantastic. You have to get excited about that. But second, if you're winning a whole lot of games over the first 15-20 games, that is a signal that you're a pretty good team."
And you can explain to the naysayers why they might want to watch the next few weeks a little more closely.
Oh, and speaking of games to watch closely, circle June 29 on your calendar. It’s a Saturday afternoon matchup with the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park; the Red Sox 83rd game of the season. As it turns out, every Red Sox team that has made it to the World Series has won their 83rd game. For the record, every World Series team also won their 81st game – except the 1986 Sox (who took a 6-4 loss to the Oakland A's). Now I’m not saying that loss was Bill Buckner’s fault, but he did go 0-4 at the plate and have an error in the field. As it turned out, it wasn’t the costliest error he’d commit that year.