Ten Fast Starts in Baseball History
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 they 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.
Going off topic a bit, to the NBA, it’s funny that the Miami Heat won 27 games in a row-1/3rd of their schedule-and yet are on pace for a pretty unremarkable 62-64 win total. The MLB equivalent is winning about 55 games in a row, but the record is 26, or 21 wins straight, depending on whether you disallow ties. Maybe in baseball, teams being so reliant on the starting pitcher for a win reduces the chances of very long winning streaks.
I’m not sure how to account for that difference between the NBA and MLB as far as win streaks are concerned, and what they generally mean for a team’s overall record. I think you are on to something when you mention pitching. In baseball, the defense has the ball, whereas in every other major sport, it is the offense that controls the ball. That must have something to do with it, I would think.
You can add the 2017 Houston Astros who are now 40-16 to this list.
I remember the M’s 2001 season well. I was still living in the PNW (that’s Pacific Northwest for the uninitiated), and it was an exciting time. It was especially cool because it occurred after the M’s had lost Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson and Gay-Rod. Although the Griffey and Johnson trades were savaged at the time, the M’s got a lot for them (particularly as their options were limited with a sulky Griffey demanding a trade exclusively to the Reds): Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, John Halama, Freddy Garcia and I think somebody else. Also, Ichiro, PNW-native John Olerud and the odious Brett Boone.
It still wasn’t as exciting as their ’95 late-season run, though.
I remember a few years back the Dodgers started the season 12-2, and worked hard to turn that into something like a 3rd place finish in the NL West.
Great stuff as always.
Those were some unbelievably talented Mariners teams back in the mid-’90’s or so. Buhner, Edgar Martinez, R.J., Griffey, etc. My brother was a huge M’s fan at the time. Once they broke up that group, he lost interest. Even with Ichiro, they just weren’t as interesting a bunch.
Haven’t been to the PNW since Pearl Jam was a big deal. That’s about a generation ago, culturally speaking.
Thanks for the comment, dude.
I didn’t include Edgar and Jay because they’re original Mariners (which is kind of an arbitrary designation, considering that neither was on the original ((1977?)) M’s squad, and that Buhner actually started his career, briefly, as a Yankee, I believe). I still have an inflatable Buhner Bone.
You better hang onto that inflatable Buhner Bone. It could be worth some big money some day 🙂
Bill, nice writing, but I’m kind of shocked that you forgot about the 1982 Atlanta Braves (especially since you brought up another Braves team), who began the season with 13 wins in a row, won the Western Division of the National League (before losing to the eventual world champion Cardinals in the playoffs.)
This was a big surprise. This was Joe Torre’s first year as the Braves manager (after five straight second division seasons at the helm of the New York Mets). I don’t think that anyone predicted the Braves to finish in first place. And that start was unbelievable. It was starting to look like the Braves would go 162-0, but that didn’t happen.
Hi Glen, Thank you. There were actually several other teams I left out. I just decided that I didn’t want another 2,500 word post, though that Braves team would certainly have been a good one to include.
Thanks for reminding me about them!
Of course if we just counted Opening Day, no team gets off to faster starts than the Mets, today being no exception. Good for the fans who came out in Queens! For me, even with the predictable bad news in the Bronx it’s been a fun start. Clayton Kershaw doing it all in L.A., and Strasburg and Harper living up to the hype in D.C.! Fun all around!
Great post, as always,
Yes, Mike, the Mets almost always seem to win on Opening Day. I just wish they had saved some of those 11 runs for their next game. They may not score that many runs again all year. It was a great Opening Day. I watched about six hours of baseball yesterday. Kershaw and Strasburg are going to be fun to watch all year, as is Harper.
Thanks for the kind words,
Very insightful and informative, Bill.
It’s been a fun Opening Day so far, Allan. Hope you’re enjoying it.
Thanks for the kind words,
I think there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg here; were these great teams because they got off the mark quickly, or did they start hot because they were great teams?
Ah, good point. I think their quick starts were mostly, but not entirely, a product of the quality of their players. Some teams, like the Mets in many seasons, start out quickly DESPITE the limitations of their rosters, then fade as the season goes along. But when a legitimately excellent squad gets off to a nice start, they’re difficult as hell to ever keep up with.
Thanks for the comment,
I grabbed my copy of Bill James’ 1985 Baseball Abstract–he looked at the question “when is a hot start meaningful?” He comes up with some interesting conclusions-A .500 team is reasonably likely to go 12-8 in any twenty game sequence (James calculates about a one in eight chance), but 16-4? About one time in 200. Ditto the Tigers in 1984–a .500 team has, in his calculation, about a six percent chance of going 24-16 in a forty-game stretch. 35-5? Well over a million to one against it. You start 35-5, that’s a clear sign of a very, very good team.
Well, Can’t argue with that one. Since the Mets won yesterday, they now only have to go 34-5 through May to prove to everyone what a great team they truly are 🙂
teams who fly out of the gates like the 1987 brewers did at 12-0 and then stumble are an interesting study. i think they lost 12 in a row the following month in merry may, but still finished 20 games over .500.
of course the larger sample of 40 games tells us much more, but even then, it’s amazing how little the 750 winning percentage teams differ from the 400 winning percentage teams. it’s like one less win a week or something like that. it makes every little decision and situational nuance critical. look out for the marlins.
Good opening day post. Good luck to the Mets. They’ll need it.
Thanks very much and, yes, you’re certainly right about that.
Nice compilation. Does this bode well for the Astros? 🙂
LOL! One win does not a fast start make. Otherwise, the Mets would have won a dozen World Series championships by now.