Every year in baseball there are a couple of teams that should be pretty good that get off to absolutely terrible starts. Within a couple of weeks of the season they have fallen well below .500, and are miles out of first place in their division. Sometimes these starts are signs of bigger problems that will continue to be an issue all season. Other times the issues quickly resolve themselves and the team gets back on track – by the dog days of summer the slow start is just a distant memory. The trick for baseball bettors, of course, is to be able to get a sense of which type of season is more likely to unfold for the slow starters. The public will typically react strongly and negatively, so the more accurate your sense of what is likely, the better the chances that you can find very nice value for your own picks. Here are five factors to consider when evaluating a slow start in Major League Baseball:
Who have they played? – Early in the season the sample size of games is very small, so it can be easy for the results to be skewed. For example, if the team had started their season playing against strong teams with veteran rotations that were likely playoff contenders then a slow start would be less concerning than if they had started against weak teams with poor rotations that weren’t expected to be very good at all. Similarly, a schedule that was heavy with road games early on would be less of a concern than a stumbling start that had happened at home. When a team has played 20 or fewer games then the difference between a really lousy start and a completely acceptable one could be as few as five or six wins. That means that the quality of the schedule has a very significant impact to the impression you should have of the team, and their continued chances going forward.
How have they lost? – All losses count the same in the standings, but some are far more concerning than others. An extra innings loss is not as disappointing as a blowout. A loss with strong pitching is much better than a loss in which your team couldn’t throw strikes, in in which it seemed like the opponents were hitting off a tee. It’s far less of a concern when the offense is firing on all cylinders in a loss than when the team is seemingly incapable of scoring any runs. To boil it down, what you basically need to consider is how close the team was to winning the games they lost. The closer they are, the more competitive they are, and the more likely they are to turn things around quickly and effectively.
How healthy are they? – Nothing can hijack the start of a season more effectively than having to field a roster that is less than ideal due to injuries. Is the batting order negatively affected because the best hitters are unavailable? Are people forced to fill roles that aren’t ideal in the lineup or in the field? Is the rotation compromised by absences? Is bullpen depth challenged? Once you get a sense of what impact injuries are having now there are two questions to look at. First, are they improving as they have learned to better deal with injuries, and as the replacement players are getting more comfortable? Second, how close is the lineup to returning to full strength?
How are their biggest divisional rivals faring? – The bigger a hole that the team falls into with their slow start the more psychological strain the team will be under because of that start, and the more pressure they will face in trying to turn things around. If a slow start for one playoff contender is accompanied by a red hot start by another playoff contender in the same division, for example, then a team can find itself seven or eight games out of first place in just a couple of weeks. That could be very tough to climb out of, and that could lead to issues down the stretch as the team tries to recover. If the rest of the teams haven’t exactly burned up the standings, though, then recovery could be easier when they do start to get back on track.
How strong is their pitching? – The biggest key to a turnaround for a team is going to be their starting pitching. If the pitching is strong and reliable then it is reasonably easy for the rest of the team to get on track in time. If the pitching has been lousy or unreliable, though, then recovery is going to be challenging. The starting rotation, then, is by far the most important place to focus in these evaluations.