The Mariners and Slow Starts Throughout MLB History

I’ve been trying to watch more baseball during the young 2017 season. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always watched plenty of baseball, but this year I have made an effort to watch more than just the Cubs. One of the teams I have been following more closely than others is the Seattle Mariners. I was intrigued by their extremely busy offseason, during which GM Jerry Dipoto further solidified his reputation as the league's most active trader. I wanted to see how all of that retooling would play out on the field. Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs beat me to this, but things in Seattle have not gone well.

The Mariners have stumbled out of the gate to a 2-8 start, putting a damper on the high hopes of a fan base looking for an end to its own playoff drought. They've had some good performances and hot starts from a few players, and their games have been extremely competitive. They just haven’t been winning them, for whatever reason. Maybe all of the roster turnover has affected team chemistry, or maybe they've just run into some bad luck. Regardless, I’d like to continue watching them play meaningful baseball games the rest of the season, and the slow start is troubling. So I did some research. 

In the history of Major League Baseball (that’s 2665 team seasons over 141 years, according to Baseball Reference), 211 teams have won 2 or fewer of the first 10 games. Many of those teams were, in fact, atrocious. Among the worst of them are the 1962 New York Mets and the 2003 Detroit Tigers, who lost 120 and 119 games, respectively. The combined winning percentage of those 211 teams is .428. Suffice it to say that the Mariners are not in good company here.

But as always, there are exceptions. 45 teams, roughly 20%, came back to finish at or above .500. Of the 10 slow-starting teams with a better run differential than this year’s Mariners (who would be tied for 2nd if not for a 5-run loss last night), 4 of them recovered to win at least half of their games. Run differential over a 10 game span is certainly not the best indication of a team’s talent level, but it makes me feel a little better about their playoff odds.

Speaking of the playoffs, the Mariners came into the season intent on reaching them. A .500 record is nice and all, but it won’t get them to the postseason. Since the league expanded the playoffs in 2012, the wild card teams have averaged 90.5 wins. The AL wild card teams have averaged 89.9 wins. The wild card team with the fewest wins was the 2015 Houston Astros with 86. Seattle will need to win at least that many, if not more, in order remain in playoff contention all season. No doubt, they have dug themselves a hole, but how much time do they have to turn it around?

Let’s set the benchmark at a winning percentage of .550, or 89 wins in a 162 game schedule. 23 teams that have started as poorly, or worse, than the Mariners went on to win at least 55% of their games. I was curious to see how long it took these teams to right the ship, so I did some more research and made a table.

Surprisingly, there is almost no correlation between a team’s breakeven game and its final winning percentage. Some teams, like the 1981 Astros – who immediately won 6 straight games to even out their record, rebounded quickly while others took a couple months to get back into contention. Dating back to 1884, it took an average of 35 games for these teams to get back to .500. If you prefer recent history, the 2001 A’s, 2007 Phillies, and 2011 Red Sox each took over 40 games to wipe the slate clean.

So there’s no need to panic in Seattle. They have plenty of time to recover. Overall, it could be worse; they could be the Blue Jays.

Analysis of Pitcher Height using PITCHf/x Data

A Quick Look at Competitive Balance in MLB

A Quick Look at Competitive Balance in MLB