How Soon is Now?by Chris Jaffe
May 05, 2008
Well, the first month of the season is in the books already. As is always the case, some teams have had very impressive hot starts while others have undergone floundering first acts. We're now in that gray zone where there's enough games played that the existing results likely mean something, but not so far in that people will overthrow their preseason projections.
Some teams have done just what's been expected of them. How boring. What fun is baseball if it works out just like it's supposed to?
St. Louis Cardinals
Among those who have bucked this trend and confounded expectations are the St. Louis Cards. Here at THT, they were the consensus pick for next-to-last in the NL Central. That's where I had 'em, and I had plenty of good company. No one here had them higher than fourth.
They've declined in wins for three straight seasons and had their first losing campaign of the millennium last year. They had a great run based around a core of fantastic players: Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols. The first two are gone, the latter is undergoing repair, and Pujols can't carry an entire team by himself (well, maybe).
Instead of collapsing, they've rejuvenated themselves. They ended April with a record of 18-11. Only two teams in all baseball have a better win-loss mark than that. How does that compare against other franchises' April starts?
Well, as I've mentioned in a handful of columns this offseason, I have a database containing big heaping gobs of team hitting and pitching team splits from Baseball Reference. One of those splits is how teams did in April. What does the Cards' April showers of victories tell us about their future?
No team has ever had an 18-11 April record before. Prior to this year, only the 2003 Marlins played 29 games before May Day. But 35 teams have played at least 20 games in April and come within 10 points of the Red Birds' .621 winning percentage. Of those:
- five won 100 games
- 31 had winning records
- a 32nd ended the year at .500
- The trio who finished under .500 includes two teams that only played 21 games in April; the Cards had 29.
Now, you should expect these to be good teams, on the whole. But the scale of it is rather impressive. On average, they had a .551 winning percentage, or 89-73 over a full season. You have to admit, it bodes pretty well for the Cards.
But perhaps that's not really fair. That includes many teams who were great the year before, and who should've been expected to do well. As it happens, a dozen teams in the sample had losing records the year before the April explosion. Here's how they did the year before and the year of their hot start:
Team Year Before April Year 1969 PIT 0.494 0.543 1973 KCR 0.494 0.543 1996 SDP 0.486 0.562 1993 SFG 0.444 0.636 1992 NYY 0.438 0.469 1991 STL 0.432 0.519 2002 MTL 0.420 0.512 1992 BAL 0.414 0.549 2001 CHC 0.401 0.543 2004 SDP 0.395 0.537 1986 SFG 0.383 0.512 1974 TEX 0.352 0.522
The combined winning percentage, at .537, isn't as high, but in some ways it's even more impressive because they started out so low. All but one of the dozen posted a winning record, and many were shockers.
They leveled off a little, but from May 1 onward, that dozen squad were 73 games over .500. Nine of the individual teams posted better than .500 records over the last five months, and two of the other three went 70-71. The 1992 Yanks were the only ones to really flop—and even they improved over the year before.
The worst-case scenario is probably the 2002 Mets. They went 82-80 in 2001. Though that misses the cutoff for the above chart, it's a lot closer to St. Louis's 78-84 record than most of the teams on it. The Mets began the next year 16-10, a near ringer for St. Louis's 17-11 record. Then they scuttled the rest of their season, going 59-76 the rest of the way.
New York's pitchers were over their heads that month. That's notable here because the Cards' success has been based on pitching. They ended April allowing 3.59 runs/game, the best rate in the league. It's also far better than their 5.12 RA/G rate from last season.
What does the database say about teams that improve their pitching so drastically? With the temperature curve, RA/G are supposed to go down in April, but not by over 1.53 runs each contest.
In fact, St. Louis's improvement is one of the 25 best ever for a team that played 20+ games in April. There are not as many teams to compare them against, so I'll look at all teams that improved from 1.38 to 1.68 runs/game the next April.
Predictably, none of those teams kept up their April pace. That's warmer weather for you. However, compared to the year before:
- 15 out of 19 allowed fewer runs per game. That includes a half-dozen that improved by over a run per contest, and another five who improved by over a half-run.
- Two more allowed within 0.02 runs/game compared to the previous season.
- An 18th allowed within 0.03 runs.
So . . apparently they got better. On average, they improved by 0.60 runs/game. Given that the NL as a whole allowed 4.7 runs/game last year, St. Louis has a superior pitching staff.
Here's another approach: St Louis has a .621 winning percentage in April 2008 following a .481 winning percentage the year before. How many teams have had a gain around 140 points over their previous win-loss mark, and what did those teams do the next year?
Well, 27 teams who played 20+ games in April have a rise within 0.150 and 0.130. Those squads went 402-230 for a .636 winning percentage that month. The year before they'd been slightly under .500, at .496.
After their hot April starts, they ended with a combined .560 winning percentage. That's even better than the previous split. All but three teams improved their winning records the year before. The squads that didn't all came off very successful seasons. The 2003 Yanks, for instance, couldn't match their 103 wins the year before, so they had to settle for a measly 101 victories.
In this sample size, the winning percentages are very diverse. It includes the 1998 Yanks, who played .739 in April after a .593 mark the year before. You also have the 1994 Mets, who went .500 in April after a 100-loss season the year before.
If you narrow it to the 11 squads with the closest win-loss mark to the Cards, they rebounded from a .474 mark the year before to a .532 record.
The team that most closely matches the Cards are the 1996 Padres. They finished a little under .500 in 1995, 70-74 in that strike-shortened season. They bolted out to a 17-10 mark—nearly a ringer for St. Louis's 18-11 mark. The Padres ended up 91-71, narrowly edging out the Dodgers for the division title. (In the NLDS the Cards swept them.)
One danger for the Cards in looking at this analysis of their April mark: as of May 1, they played only five games against teams with winning records. That's the lowest total of any team in baseball. By the time you read this article, that will no longer be the case thanks to a weekend series against the Cubs. But their post-April schedule will be harder.
Does this mean they'll just fall apart as the season progresses? Are they a team built to prey on the weaker teams of this earth? Last year, they were 41-34 (.547) against bad teams and 37-50 (.425) against better squads. A clear difference, but is that a normal difference?
Well, the 2007 Cards were the 20th team in baseball history to go exactly 78-84. That score of squads went 717-1000 (.418) against first division squads and 843-680 (.554) against the rosters of the damned. So those Cards actually held up a bit better against superior squads than most likely teams.
As I write this, the Cards are 15-9 against crumbums, for a .625 winning percentage. Well, in baseball history, 22 teams have had a .625 winning percentage against lesser squads over the course of a full season. Looking at them:
- Two won over 100 games (the 1999 Braves and 1971 A's)
- A total of 7 had a season long winning percentage of .550 or higher
- A dozen had a team winning percentage between .525 and .550
- Only one was below .500 (the 1934 Browns).
Combined, despite their demolition of the dwarves, these 22 squads were 774-896 (.463) against good teams. Apparently it's tough to beat winning franchises.
So based on that, the Cards should drop off a bit, but a .525-.550 winning record still puts them at 85-89 wins—equal to the best mark to come out of the NL Central in the last two seasons.
The NL Central was supposed to be a fight between the Cubs and Brewers, with the Reds as the favorite dark horse. But there's very little precedent for a squad to start like this Red Birds unit has only to completely fall off the mark.
And I especially don't think it's likely that a Tony LaRussa club will be one of those few who do. The man gets the most out of his squads. Sure his players are good, but he keeps getting them to do better than people would expect. When this site began in 2004, the original staff almost universally projected a third place finish in the NL Central for them. All LaRussa did was guide them to 105 victories and the pennant.
In 24 full seasons, his teams have had the best winning percentage in the league more often than a losing record (8 to 6). Throw in strike-shortened seasons and it's "only" 8 vs. 8. Gotta respect that.
If, between the time I write this and the time you read this, they either sweep the Cubs or get swept by them, it doesn't really affect what I've said that much. A month is worth more than a weekend.
New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles
As long as I'm here, these two squads also have starts that deserve addressing. Both have very clear patterns of deceptive starts in recent seasons. Here's the Yanks winning percentages in April and over the season since 2004:
Year April Season 2008 0.483 ??? 2007 0.391 0.580 2006 0.565 0.599 2005 0.417 0.586 2004 0.520 0.623
Let's see the Yanks out of the playoff picture after Labor Day before writing them off.
The O's have an even more impressive track record.
Year April Season 2008 0.556 ??? 2007 0.462 0.426 2006 0.500 0.432 2005 0.696 0.457 2004 0.571 0.481 2003 0.520 0.438 2002 0.462 0.414 2001 0.462 0.391 2000 0.583 0.457
I wonder what baseball's record is for most consecutive season for having a better April winning percentage than season mark. It's possible the Orioles have just set it. By their own standards, their April was fairly typical. Let's see how long they can stay over .500. They haven't been over .500 in August in God only knows how long.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.