MLB Coverage: How Much Does Week 1 Matter?

We’re wrapping up the first week of the baseball season as this article goes online late Sunday afternoon. The phrase “it’s still early” will be used to either lift sagging spirits or tamp down rising expectations. There will be further debate about how much can be read into the season’s early returns. While every team is different, the nature of every loss and win with its own nuance, we can at least look back on recent years to see how much the first week told us. In today’s MLB coverage, TheSportsNotebook reviews the last five years (2008-12) to help us determine how much weight to assign this week’s results.

Let’s begin by defining the parameters of this little research project. I stuck to teams that either won five games or lost five games in the opening week. I’m not at all ready to read anything into a 4-3 or 3-4 start. For teams that played six games, I suppose 4-2 or 2-4 is a little different, but it’s hardly a dramatic week in either case. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll refer to teams that operated on the extremes.

There were 42 teams that made the playoffs over this period (eight per year through 2011, and ten last season). Only 12 of these 42 registered on the extremes, and in 11 cases it was positive. The one team that had a turnaround was the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays, who started 0-6. Although even this comes with an asterisk, because the team they beat out for the wild-card spot was the Boston Red Sox, who also started 0-6.

The fact a clear minority of eventual playoff teams were in this discussion does lend credence to the “it’s irrelevant” camp regarding the importance of Week 1. But the notable absence of teams getting off to bad starts making the playoffs certainly can’t be overlooked. For the time being, this shouldn’t have a huge impact on how we view the 2013 season—the only teams in the extreme negative to date are Houston and Florida and I trust eliminating them won’t affect too many people’s preseason picks. Although there are games pending that can put others in that category, notably including Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

If we shift the focus from the end-point (the eventual playoff teams) and to the start point, which is just to look at the teams that did have noteworthy beginnings, we see more evidence for correlation. There were 43 teams whose start met the parameters of this study, for better or for worse. In 30 of those cases (69.7%), the start matched the finish, measured by whether the team was above or below .500.

This is far from a perfect measuring stick. For example, the aforementioned 2011 Boston Red Sox turned their 0-6 start into a 90-72 finish, although the fact they fired Terry Francona and went into an upheaval is a pretty good sign that the front office saw the start as indicative to where the team ended up. Or in 2008, the St. Louis Cardinals got off to a good start and finished 86-76, but since it was not a playoff year, I doubt Cardinal fans see this as an example of a good start producing a good final outcome. But the fact we’ve got an average of more than eight teams per season to look at, and that the 69.7% match is so strong, I think the case for correlation clears the margin of error.

I’m not ready to get carried away with conclusions on this. To step up and say that a bad start takes you out of the playoffs, or that it very likely predicts you’ll have a winning season, we’d have to go one level deeper on research and find out if the same could be said of Week 2, Week 3, etc. In short, is there something unique about this first week, or is it just a case that good teams win games and bad teams lose them regardless of what week it is?

Even with those precautionary points though, I think the evidence at least says you can’t be dismissive about teams that started exceptionally strong or notably weak. It bodes well in places like Arizona and Colorado, should send off some mild alarm bells in places like Milwaukee or Pittsburgh if these teams lose their fifth game early and confirm what we already though about Houston and Miami. Above all, it reminds us of something that the execs at ESPN, Fox, TBS and the MLB Network will be happy to reiterate—these games matter.