The Meaning of a Great Start

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Conceptualizing the past in terms of chunks of years that end in either zero or five is tidy, but it is also misleading. Human behavior, after all, does not wait for the earth to rotate around the sun five or ten times to make things happen. For this reason, the calendric nineteenth century that began in 1800 and ended on December 31, 1899, is not the same as the historic (at least in Europe) “long nineteenth century” that began in 1789 with the French Revolution and concluded on the eve of the First World War in 1914. Human stubbornness in the face of calendar months is also evident in the course of a baseball season. A lot has been made about how poorly the Rockies have historically performed in May. Matt Gross at Purple Row makes a compelling argument, echoed on the most recent Purple Dino Podcast, that May will be a critical month for the Rockies this season. But the month is difficult, as Gross points out, because of the teams they play, where they play them, and the literal and figurative injury bug that currently afflicts the Rockies.

In isolation, monthly records are not very illuminating. Along with the plod of time, a baseball season becomes incrementally shorter with each passing game, as it creeps toward game 162. Another way to look at a season is to divide it into periods in order to tease out what was anomalous and what representative. Doing this also allows us to think about what great and poor starts in the Rockies past have meant. In this post, I’ll explore the start of four seasons in Rockies history. I loosely define “start” as the first 40 games, or a quarter of the way through the season. From 1993-2013, the Rockies have played .500 or better baseball after 40 games a total of seven times in 21 seasons played. However, in only three of those seven years did the team finish the season above .500 (1995, 1997, and 2000), and in only one of those years, 1995, did the Rockies make the playoffs. In 2013, 2011, 2006, and 2001, the Rockies played at least .500 baseball through the first quarter of the season, but ended below. Additionally, the Rockies two best seasons to date, 2007 and 2009, started with a sub-.500 record after 40 games. First, I’ll dig into two of the years that turned sour, 2013 and 2011, before addressing the 2007 and 2009 playoff years.

Just last year, the Rockies concluded their first 40 games with a respectable 21-19 record, and were just two games out of first place. They were 16-11 in April and 12-16 in May. However, each isolated record was a mirage. It is more representative of the team’s performance to break up their first 40 games into a “short April” and a “long May.” The squad’s short April started with the first game on April 1 and concluded after game 17 on April 20. The team was a spectacular 13-4, with an incredible .764 winning percentage. Nobody expected the Rockies to keep it up—after all, they were on pace to win about 125 games. We know now that of the teams the Rockies played in their short April—the Brewers, the Giants, the Padres, the Mets, and the Diamondbacks—the Diamondbacks finished with the best final record, and it was an unspectacular 81-81. Games 18 to 40 were less forgiving. The Rockies finished up the first quarter of the 2013 season by going 8-15, for a .347 winning percentage. If we want to extend the Rockies long May, I’d probably conclude it after game 54, which was a loss to the Houston Astros that capped off a four game series loss to the only team that would eventually lose 100 games in 2013. If we extend it that far, the Rockies finished their long May with a 15-22 record. Interestingly, the team was still two games above .500 at that point. But it was smoke and mirrors, as the team’s overall record was propped up by the 13 wins they banked during their short April. While the monthly split says that the Rockies finished April with a winning record, it was actually not a very good month. Similarly, the team’s calendric May was bad, but it was hidden within an even longer stretch of poor performance.

The Rockies 2011 season is strikingly similar to 2013. In 2011, the Rockies were 22-18 after their first 40 games. Their winning percentage was .550. Over 162 games, that would translate to 89 wins and a possible appearance in the playoffs. Looking back, it seems like the team’s first 40 games was a story of two months. In April, they were an impressive 17-8, but it was followed by a putrid 8-21 May. With the benefit of hindsight, however, we can conclude that the impressive April was, like 2011, not very good. The Rockies won 11 of their first 13 games in another outstanding short April. The Rockies began their 2011 against better competition than 2013, with one series against the 94 win Arizona Diamondbacks and one against the 82 win Los Angeles Dodgers. But then came the Rockies long May. I would argue that the team’s long May ended at one of two points. The first was after a quarter of the season was complete once the team played its 40th game; the second was the Rockies final game of the season, capping off a not-so-good 73-89 season. After the hot 11-2 start, the Rockies proceeded to go 11-16, bad for a .407 winning percentage. Not incidentally, the Rockies record for the remainder of the 2011 season was 60-87, for a winning percentage of .403. The team’s 22-18 record after 40 games was again propped up by the hot start—the team’s talent did not approach the .550 winning percentage it had after the first quarter of the season. Similarly, the Rockies were not as bad as the .276 winning percentage the team earned in the calendar month of May.

But what about the Rockies two best seasons, 2007 and 2009, when the team finished their first 40 games under .500 before going on to win at least 90 games? It is well known that in both seasons the Rockies started sluggish before turning the seasons around. In fact, they had an almost identical record after 40 games in each, 17-23 in 2007 and 16-24 in 2009. Let’s start with the year we all wistfully recall, 2007. Over the course of the Rockies first 40 games in the World Series year, the Rockies were a good team that wasn’t winning yet. Significantly, they also weren’t losing at a dangerous rate. In the first 40 games, the Rockies best winning streak was three in a row, but they lost three in a row twice, and they did so in the same stretch of 14 games. After ten games of the season, the Rockies had won five games and lost five games—but then they lost four of their next 14 games. After this bad stretch, the team was six games under .500 at 9-15. They also sat at six games under .500 after their first 40 contests. In contrast to the 2011 and 2013 seasons, which were built on the shaky foundation of a single good stretch, the rough start to 2007 masked what would turn out to be a good team. The low point in the season for the Rockies came after game 45, when they were nine games below .500. This, I would say, concluded the 2007 Rockies long April of uneven, but not poor, play. They followed it up with an excellent short May, which was a stretch of 26 games starting on May 22 and concluded on June 21, when the team won 19 and lost only seven games.

The 2009 season—the best regular season the team has ever had in terms of wins and losses—also started out poorly. The team had a winning percentage of just .400 after the first 40 games. At the end of this first quarter of the season, manager Clint Hurdle was fired and replaced by Jim Tracy. At the time of the firing, the Rockies were ten games below .500, at 18-28. That was not the low point in the season though. After Jim Tracy’s first six games leading the team, the Rockies had fallen to 12 games below .500, with a record of 20-32. The first 52 games of the 2009 season are best classified not as a short or long month, but as a tepid and protracted spring. Most notably, the team was subject to a bit of win-loss randomness, as the Rockies went 2-9 in one run games over the first 52. Most baseball teams, even the very good and the very bad, usually win about half of their one run games. If the Rockies had performed according to expectations and won five out of those eleven games decided by a run, the team’s record still would have been a less alarming 23-29. Indeed, immediately following the lukewarm spring of 2009 came the Rockies sizzling summer, when they won 18 of the next 19 games. Within that stretch they were 4-0 in one run games, and then 17-11 for the rest of the season. The team finished with a 23-20 record in one run games, which is much closer to expectations. The fact that the Rockies’ .500-ish record in one run games wasn’t evenly distributed throughout the season created the perception of two different teams. With the benefit of hindsight, we can periodize the team’s under-performance through the first 52 games and over-performance in the next 19 in order to tease out the team’s actual ability, which was in between the two but tended toward the over-performing club en route to 92 wins.

The periods I identified are selective, but they are not arbitrary. The periods elucidate the anomalies of the Rockies’ past seasons, as well as early stretches of the season that represent how the team eventually fared. You may have gathered by now that the 2014 Rockies have played 40 games.  The 2014 Rockies have matched the best start in team history. The Colorado Rockies have played 40 of 162 games, for a record of 23-17 and winning percentage of .575. Over 162 games, that translates to 93 wins. It would greatly exceed pre-season expectations, but every year a handful of teams win at least that many games. So where are the 2014 Rockies? Are they in the midst of an extended and chimeric April? Have the Rockies transitioned to a warm summer of slow decline that began with a 5-0 shutout in Texas on May 8? One of the things about history is that it’s exceedingly difficult to interpret while in the moment. A conceit of this exercise is that because we are in the middle of the 2014 season, we simply can’t be sure what the Rockies first 40 games mean just yet. The Rockies have already played 14 one run games so far, but they’ve won as many as they’ve lost.

A great thing about baseball is that each season is its own discrete history, so we don’t have to wait long for sufficient hindsight. I don’t know how I’ll sort out the Rockies season eight months from now—hell, I can’t even say with confidence what century I’m living in. The lesson the Rockies’ past seasons teach us is that great and poor starts don’t necessarily determine how the season will turn out. With hindsight, we can determine that some good starts were actually not very good, and some poor starts were not as bad as they seemed. In order to draw conclusions, we first need to know the rest of the story. There’s time to offer more interpretation later. For now, we can say that the Rockies have matched their best start through 40 games, with a 23-17 record. What comes next is unclear, but it will be fun watching the story unfold.

About Eric Garcia McKinley

I grew up in Colorado and have been a Rockies fan from the very beginning. I've previously written about the Rockies for Rox Pile. You can follow me on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.
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