Major League Baseball off to Fun Start
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At the conclusion of tonights games, all teams in major league baseball will have concluded their opening series. And while there’s no meaningful player or team-specific information that can be dragged out of a three game sample (not to mention it’s too small of a sample for even mainstream columnists to react to), that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that can be said for the first series of the baseball season.
Last night, the Royals, Pirates, and A’s all won extra inning thrillers, despite collectively being picked to finish in last place (the only thing I could think of that they had in common). Kansas City and Pittsburgh have followed up this effort with crushing losses, but regardless, the difference in each team’s positioning shouldn’t be understated. In July, the outcome of these games will be basically irrelevant. But because of those extra inning wins: the A’s open up their 2010 season by jumping out ahead of the AL’s most competitive division, the Royals narrowly avoid a crippling 0-3 start by the skins of their teeth (with the Red Sox coming to the K tomorrow for 3 games), and the Pirates are out in front of the NL Central…a division they could win if they are better than expected. The action provided late Wednesday night could have helped to reinforce popular preseason opinion if those games had broke differently, instead, it now challenges analysts to question what they might have thought to be true.
So, what’s with the Mariners and the Dodgers, why aren’t they beating inferior opponents? Well, probably nothing. Three games in baseball don’t mean much of anything, at least from the favored-panic perspective. Six or seven games? Now you’re talking about 4% of the season. In the scheme of a six month season, April statistics mean next to nothing, so a fraction of April is irrelevant, but there is never a good time for a perceived contender to underachieve. When the Detroit Tigers lost their first seven games in 2008, after being projected to win or finish just out of first in the central, that seven game sample was not considered meaningless. It’s not a probable outcome that a good baseball team will lose even six consecutive games at any point during the season, much less when everyone is healthy. Baseball is not supposed to be a game where one game can ruin a season, not really even in the playoffs (exception: play-in games), but you try to find me a sport where a catastrophic week and a day or two doesn’t completely change a team’s prospectus.
The point is this: for some perceived contenders, there will be added pressure to play like contenders this upcoming weekend. You know, in the middle of April. That, I think, is what makes baseball more like the NFL (exciting start-to-finish dependence on winning results), than the NBA (good teams get high seeds, bad teams can wait until March to kick it into gear). Four playoff spots per league help that. A division can’t be won in April, or May, or June, but it can certainly be lost.