Goldman: Teams that played back a poor start

From SABR member Steven Goldman at The National Pastime Museum on March 23, 2018:

One of the most difficult estimations for both players and fans to make is when a hot start becomes “real”—that is, when does it become predictive of the rest of the season? Testing this notion will get you an answer as low as 15 games, or about 10 percent of the season, or 35 games, which is just over a fifth of a 162-game campaign. What makes this proposition even more difficult for the spectator trying to gauge the appropriate level of disappointment or a general manager wondering if he should spend prospects to improve his team now or write off the season and trade his veterans to acquire them, is that “predictive” isn’t synonymous with “certain.”

Consider the 1966 Cleveland Indians. The Indians won 10 straight games to open the season and by game 17 were 15–2 and leading the second-place Baltimore Orioles by two games. The previous season the Indians had had their first winning campaign since 1959, going 87–75 and finishing fifth, but if fans looked back on that season as a justification for believing in the ’66 hot start they were mistaken. The team had about five strong assets—outfielders Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner and Rocky Colavito, plus a high-quality trio of starting pitchers in young lefty Sam McDowell and righties Luis Tiant and Sonny Siebert. However, General Manager Gabe Paul’s decision to reacquire Colavito, lost in 1960 via a franchise-destroying trade by then-GM Frank Lane, cost the team the 22-year-old center fielder Tommie Agee, who would win the AL Rookie of the Year award in 1966, 22-year-old southpaw Tommy John, who would record a 2.71 ERA over the next five years, and catcher John Romano, 29, who had slugged .461 (123 OPS+) in 580 career games with the team. These losses would badly constrain the team’s ability to fill out the roster.

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Originally published: March 23, 2018. Last Updated: March 23, 2018.