The Rays shocked many by starting the season 0-6, then further floundering to 1-8 record. Certainly the sting wasn't as bad, considering the heavily-favored Red Sox also limped off to the exact same start. Many "experts" immediately sealed the Rays' fate, just nine days into the season. Quite a few were quick to point out that only one team had ever reached the postseason after such a disastrous start: the 1995 Cincinnati Reds. This nifty bit of info was used more to prevent Red Sox fans from throwing themselves off rooftops than to qualm the disappointment in the Bay Area.
But I immediately began to question what this actually meant. Were the Ray really dead in the water? Should I stop going to games? Should I burn my Rays merchandise and hide in the house all summer?
The answer was no. More like a hell no. I love my baseball-filled summers. I used those '95 Reds to buoy my faith until the Rays came around. And come around they did. Finishing April with a solid 15-12 mark. In a universe where the MLB playoffs started today, the Rays would be tied for the Wild Card with the Angels. However, there is no such universe, and instead the Rays will play their scheduled 162 games.
The current standings weren't enough to comfort me though. Being the pragmatic stathead that I am, I've raided Baseball-Reference.com to further dissipate any lingering fears that may still be hanging around after that ghastly start. Using BB-ref's play index, I was able to unearth 65 teams that staggered out of the gate with a 1-8 record or worse. The results did little to soothe my worries. Of the 65 teams who started out their season at a 1-8 clip or worse, only seven were able to regain their composure and finish their season above .500. These teams are the 1903 Cincinnati Reds, 1916 New York Giants, 1921 St. Louis Cardinals, 1922 Reds, 1980 Atlanta Braves, 1983 Houston Astros, and of course those 1995 Reds.
Now linked up to these teams, I quickly dove into these seven teams' managers and players as well as their final standings.
A quick profile of the group's managers yielded three Hall of Famers and one surely to be enshrined (1903 Reds' player-manager Joe Kelley, '16 Giants' John McGraw, '21 Cards' Branch Rickey and '80 Braves' Bobby Cox). The other three managers all had career winning percentages above .500; generally speaking, they were winners. Not the types to be hamstrung by a dismal start.
Combing through the seven different rosters, I found that every team benefitted from having at least one Hall of Fame player on their roster. The 1903 Reds had Kelley and 1B Jake Beckley. The '16 Giants had the most HOF-ers, but they contributed the least, as they were either too young (High Pockets Kelly and Edd Roush) or too old (Christy Mathewson). The '21 Cardinals had the legendary Rogers Hornsby and pitcher Jesse Haines. The '22 Reds featured a grown up Roush in their outfield and pitcher Eppa Rixey in their rotation. The '80 Braves and '83 Astros featured timeless hurlers Phil Niekro and Nolan Ryan, respectively. The 1995 Reds had that season's MVP, and likely 2012 HOF inductee, shortstop Barry Larkin.
Already separated from the other teams that were incapable of breaking even after the tough 1-8 start, the results of the seven ranged from the 81-80 1980 Braves back, again, to the '95 Reds' 85-59 record, which gave them a .590 winning percentage during that strike-shortened campaign (side note: the 1921 Cards had the most wins of the group at 87). After each team's first 27 games, only those pestering '95 Reds had amassed the Rays' total of 15 wins, actually going 16-11. The Rays are already ahead of 63 of those teams that started 1-8. A solid point, but this information was inconclusive, at best. While Maddon and our youngsters aren't Hall of Fame-caliber yet, Joe is a smart leader with a pennant already to his name, and it is my firm belief that this team will have multiple Hall of Fame players when it is all said and done.
Moving on, I thought maybe a better comparison could be drawn from within the organization itself. The Rays franchise owns around a handful of 10-game losing streaks, with the most recent one being an 11-game skid that knocked the 2009 Rays out of contention. But those other teams aren't of the same ilk as this team, right?! Last year's AL East champs lost only five in a row, but the '08 pennant winners dropped seven straight. Yet another gratifying point in favor of the 2011 Rays. However, none of those streaks were to kick off a season. Because that means something. Or not.
Taking a small sample size from the front, middle or end of any team's season is a foolhardy approach to statistics, especially as they apply to the marathon that is the MLB's 162-game schedule. And simply stating that because something has not yet happened (or not frequently enough) does not preclude the event from occurring. This idea of beginning a season on losing streak as automatically disqualifying a team from the playoffs has no logical bearings, it's more or less a ploy ESPN likes to throw out there for sheer reaction. I don't recall the Red Sox packing it in after falling down 0-3 in the 2004 ALCS, simply because no team had ever done it before.And in the Rays case, at least one team has done it before.
Still my search for more relevancy and relief continued. Having dispatched with the whole "to start a season" crap, I opened the dragnet up wider, searching for more pertinent information, refining my search to what really matters: the playoffs. So far, the 2011 Rays' longest losing skid has maxed out at just six games. So then what's the longest losing streak by a World Series winner? A pennant winner? A division winner?
A Google search will tell you these answers. The 1953 New York Yankees lost nine straight games but ended up winning the Series. The 1951 New York Giants lost 11 games en route to their NL pennant. The 1982 Atlanta Braves also lost 11 but still managed a postseason spot. These Rays aren't even close to those numbers, but these three teams seem to be outliers.
The picture was starting to come together, but I needed some more numerical convincing. Great data was provided by Baseball Prospectus, but the article seemed to arbitrarily select 1974 as a baseline. Wanting to have a more-leveled field of data, which had to be somewhat quick to compile, I opted to go from 1995 onward. The '95 season was the first season using the current divisional structure, the Wild Card and easily provided me with enough data to run some useful analysis.
Over the last 16 seasons there have been 128 different playoff teams. 96 entered the postseason after winning their division; 32 as a Wild Card. 32 teams obviously won the pennant, with 16 of them winning the World Series. How many of these teams lost at least six games in a row throughout the course of their respective playoff runs? Here's the answers:
- Of the 128 teams, 60 (or 47%) lost six or more games consecutively.
- Of the 96 Division winners, 41 (or 43%) lost six or more games consecutively.
- Of the 32 Wild Cards, 19 (or 59%) lost six or more games consecutively.
- Of the 32 League champions, 13 (or 41%) lost six or more games consecutively.
- Of the 16 Worlds Series champions, 7 (or 44%) lost six or more games consecutively.
Taking it a loss further, 26 of the 128 playoff teams had skids of seven or more. 12 teams reached eight, and just one, the 2010 Atlanta Braves, lost nine in a row.
Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber: "So you're telling me there's a chance."
Ahhh, a sigh of relief. And after hours huddled in front of my computer screen, I feel satisfied. Suck on that Baseball Tonight. The hyperbole surrounding their shoddily thrown together tables and charts has likely cost the Rays some ticket sales in the early goings, but I'm here to tell anyone who'll listen that it's not time to bailout on the guys. And if you did prematurely eject, the Rays bandwagoneers are a forgiving bunch and will welcome you back with open arms.