In baseball, as in life, it’s important to get off to a good start. If I begin my day, for example, by mistakenly squeezing my wife’s hair gel on to my toothbrush, I know I’m in for a rough day. And my first morning cup of coffee better have the right balance of sugar and cream, or the joy of the day will seep slowly away.
Championship baseball teams do not always get off to fast starts. The 1914 “Miracle” Braves began the season with a 4-18 record before going on to win the World Series. Other teams stay close to the top before catching fire during the final four to six weeks, stealing victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat.
Often, however, a championship team (or at least a playoff-bound team) will send a message to the rest of the league early, making it clear that they’re out for blood. The obvious advantage of getting off to a quick start is, of course, that it leaves said team with a certain margin for error as the season plays out. Also, it puts early pressure on their divisional opponents to not fall too far behind too quickly.
While this is not a scientific, comprehensive study of this topic, the following ten teams are examples of how and why a fast start can make it virtually inevitable that the team that sprints out of the gate most successfully will often be the team celebrating (at least) a division title come October.
1) 2001 Seattle Mariners – Finished the season with a Major League record 116 wins against just 42 losses. The Mariners began the season with a 20-5 record in April, and were 40-12 at the end of May. They won their division, and advanced all the way to the A.L. Championship series vs. the Yankees, where the lost in five exciting games.
2) 1986 New York Mets – Posted a record of 108-54, winning their division by 21.5 games over the second place Phillies. The Mets enjoyed a 13-3 April, including an 11-game winning streak, and were 31-12 by Memorial Day. They would, of course, go on to defeat the Red Sox in a seven-game World Series thriller.
3) 1998 New York Yankees – Before the Mariners won a record 116 games in ’01, the Yanks had set the record themselves with 114 wins in ’98. The Yanks finished 22 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox in the A.L. East. After dropping four of their first five, the Yankees quickly righted the ship and won 16 of their next 18 games, finishing April with a 17-6 record, which further improved to 37-13 after two months. The Yanks would go on to sweep the Padres in four World Series games.
4) 1984 Detroit Tigers – The Tigers began the season 35-5, and never looked back. They led their division from wire-to-wire, eventually winning a total of 104 games. Starting pitcher Jack Morris, who tossed a no-hitter in April, was already 10-1 before the end of May (though he was just 9-10 after that point.) Morris also won three playoff games that season, posting a 1.80 ERA in those three starts. The Tigers defeated the Padres in a five-game World Series.
5) 1969 Baltimore Orioles - Blew away the rest of the A.L., winning 109 games. The Orioles finished 19 games ahead of the second-place Tigers in the A.L. East in the inaugural year of divisional play. After sweeping a double-header by the combined score of 19-5 on May 4th against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles were already 20-8 on the young season. Through May 30th, they were 34-14. The Orioles would defeat the Twins in the first ever A.L. Championship series, then would shockingly win just one game in the ’69 Series vs. the Mets.
6) 1956 New York Yankees – Another in a long line of Yankee championship teams, the ’56 Yanks won seven of their first eight ball games, and were cruising with a 29-13 record by May 31st. They finished the year with 97 wins, dropping their final two decisions at Fenway Park. They went on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a seven-game World Series. Don Larsen pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in Game 5.
7) 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers – The only 20th-century Brooklyn team to win a World Championship, Dem Bums ran off ten straight victories to start the season, and were an unbelievable 22-2 by May 10th. By the end of May, they were 32-11. Ultimately, the Dodgers won 98 games, then defeated the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.
8) 1931 Philadelphia Athletics – This highly talented group finished the season with 107 wins, 13 more than the mighty Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig. Admittedly, the A’s were just 7-7 at one point, but then won 17 consecutive games and went into June with a record of 30-10. Nevertheless, this particular Athletics team lost the ’31 World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.
9) 1927 New York Yankees – Murderer’s Row opened the first week of their historic season by going 6-0-1 in the first week of the season. By May 19th, they were 21-8-1 en route to a 110-44-1 season. They finished 19 games ahead of the second-place Athletics. In the World Series, they systematically dismantled the Pirates in just four games.
10) 1905 New York Giants – This team featured Christy Mathewson, “Iron Joe” McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan and, for one game, the mysterious “Moonlight” Graham. The Giants began the season by winning six of their first seven games, and were 25-6 by May 23rd. Ultimately, they would win 105 games on the season. In just the second World Series ever played, John McGraw’s Giants would defeat Connie Mack’s Athletics in five games, a Series in which Christy Mathewson would toss three shutouts in six days.
As you can see, there are several examples in baseball history of the importance of getting off to a fast start. While this has not been the path followed by each and every championship squad, a good start often does bode well for a team’s chances of making the playoffs.