Is It Time to Panic in Boston?

With today’s 1-0 loss to the Indians, the Boston Red Sox are now 0-6. This is the same Red Sox team that many people, myself included, tabbed as the favorites to win the World Series. So far, they haven’t hit (only Minnesota has been worse offensively after today’s shutout) and they really haven’t pitched (entering the day with a ridiculous 8.25 FIP), and the total team meltdown has led to a miserable start to the season and a 4 1/2 game deficit behind the East-leading Orioles.

Those last three words should be all you need to know about whether the current standings are predictive of where we’ll be at year’s end, but that hasn’t stopped a number of people from pointing out that no team that has ever begun the season 0-6 has gone on to play in the World Series, and only two out of the 85 teams to ever start 0-5 (or worse) had even made the playoffs. Those sound like seriously scary numbers until you realize that there’s a huge sampling bias problem – most teams that start a season with a long losing streak kind of suck. By virtue of filtering only teams that have lost a bunch of games to start the season, we’re left looking at the records of teams who inherently lacked talent in most cases, and holding those teams up as examples of how the 2011 Red Sox (who don’t suck, despite their poor start) will play going forward doesn’t work.

So, no, Boston fans should not be scared by the lack of historical comparisons for slow starting teams turning it around – there simply aren’t very many examples of teams this good starting this poorly. And, just because they lost their first six games does not mean we should throw out our evaluations of the talent on their roster that we believed to be true a week ago. In fact, six games shouldn’t be enough to change any evaluation of ability in a significant way, so whatever you thought about the Red Sox’ abilities last week, you should still think something very close to that today.

However, that doesn’t mean circumstances haven’t changed. By losing their first six games, the Red Sox have dug themselves into a pretty decent-sized hole, and while our evaluation of the talent on their roster might be the same, our expectation of the final results of their season has been altered.

In the Fan Standings based on our reader’s projections of individual player performance, you guys had the Red Sox winning 98 games this year, or 60.5 percent of all the games they played. If we apply that exact same projected winning percentage to 156 games – the remainder of the Red Sox’ schedule – we come up with 94.4 wins. Even with the belief that the Red Sox’ slump doesn’t change our opinion of their true-talent level at all, we have to adjust our expectation of their final record down from 98 wins to 95 wins (all six losses having been on the road so far, we’ll round up to account for the schedule slightly favoring Boston going forward).

Losing three wins off of your projected record is a big deal – the change is essentially equivalent to the adjustment we would have had to make had J.D. Drew blown out his knee on Opening Day and was lost for the remainder of the season. All of the sudden, the fairly significant projected gap between Boston and New York (who projected as a 94-win team and are on pace for that mark) has all but disappeared. Even if we agree that the Red Sox are still the better team than New York right now, Boston’s slow start has made the race in the AL East a virtual coin flip.

It’s just six games, but these results count in the standings, too. While we shouldn’t get carried away with the doom and gloom, the reality is that the Sox have indeed frittered away a large percentage of their chances of winning the division this year. I’d still bet on them to make the playoffs, but their chances are now quite a bit lower than they were a week ago.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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13 years ago

I don’t think they should panic, but 3.7% of the season is done… and they’re going to need to go 95-61 (.583) from here on out to feel comfortable, which is totally in reach.

However, the Rays need to panic as they are not looking 0-6 in the face, and I’m sorry, but that line up isn’t very good.

13 years ago
Reply to  Otter

Sorry my math is all wrong. Forget that. Go with Dave’s numbers. Sorry.

13 years ago
Reply to  Otter

Dave also failed to point out that the vast majority of teams that started out 0 – 6 were not in the wildcard era, if they were there would be higher number that made the playoffs…and everyone here knows that after making the playoffs it is entirely possible that any team could win it all…

Rex Manning Day
13 years ago
Reply to  Otter

Actually, I don’t think Dave’s numbers are much better.

I think it’s inaccurate to simply apply pre-season projections to the remainder of the season and claim that we need to bump down Boston’s projected wins.

After all, the projections had Boston losing 64 games this season. Why can’t we presume that the first 6 games are simply part of those 64? What if Boston started the season 10-10? There’d probably be some mild comments about a slow start, but applying this post’s strategy, we’d have to bring down our expectations to 96 games. How many people would really adjust their expectations of Boston based on a 10-10 start, though?

I guess the point is, a .605 team is not going to be a .605 team for every 5-10 game stretch during the season. When you expect a team to be .605 at the end of a season, you’re not saying that they will win exactly 6 of every 10 games, but that they’ll have enough 8-10 stretches to balance out the 2-10 stretches (sorry, this is a stupid-obvious thing to say on this site, but still). So I don’t think you can lop off the first week and project out as if it didn’t happen; that .605 projection explicitly *included* the first week.

Now, you might observe that from here on out, Boston needs to be a .628 team to meet their projection, and that’s strictly true. But, again, it’s misleading because, again, the original projection included the games Boston would lose. If two weeks ago I told you that Boston would lose 6 games in a row, and would therefore need to be a .628 teams for the other 156 games to meet your projections, I doubt you’d change them.

I think it’s certainly fair to say that Boston is digging itself into a hole with this losing streak, I just don’t think you can lop off 6 games from the record and apply the same projection from here on out.

13 years ago
Reply to  Otter

The Rays look baaad! I wonder how many times that team is going to get no-hit this year? It’s ashamed because BJ Upton is really having a nice start to the season. Only a matter of time until he’s in the 1 or 2 hole, and not just against lefties.

13 years ago
Reply to  Marc

Rex Manning Day:
>I think it’s certainly fair to say that Boston is digging itself into a >hole with this losing streak, I just don’t think you can lop off 6 >games from the record and apply the same projection from here >on out.

Oi, this thinking is really muddled. The “lopping” you are suggesting is unjustified is, you know, actual games actually being played instead of imaginary projections. Once they are played, you can’t, as a matter of logic, say, “well some of those losses would’ve been included in the overall projection anyway,” as the games played are NOT projections. Put another way: by your logic, you are saying that losing the first 6 games is a good thing for the Red Sox’ projection over the remaining 156 games, because they’ll actually OUTPERFORM what was originally projected over the 162 season. That makes no sense. If they continue on their current pace and go 3-21 in April that won’t be good for their projection for the next 5 months. Losing games is bad.

Obviously, I don’t think the Red Sox are done, but I think what Dave’s post misses is that an 1-7 start, even though it’s small sample size, indicates that the projections might have been overly sunny for the Sox this year.