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Shape-Sifting

After starting the season with a horrid 1-8 mark, the Nats have been playing essentially break-even ball. A few days ago, they had split fourteen games since the disasterous start. Currently, they are 8-9 since gasping for air. This figure is subject to change with tonight's game in San Diego, but the larger point is that the team is playing competitive ball at the moment.

This essentially .500 stretch, occasioned by much more reliable pitching than we saw in the first week or two, probably evokes different responses from different people:

  • The Self-Conscious: "Thank the lordy, maybe they won't be a laughingstock."
  • The Optimistic: "Hey, maybe this team isn't so bad after all."
  • The Willfully Delusional: "You like? This is just the beginning!"
I wonder what a 7-7, or 8-9, or what-have-you stretch really means. Surely, this team wasn't going to play .111 ball the entire campaign; that would be, well, absolutely unprecedented suckitude. Surely, even the worst teams out there wrap around the worst stretches with decent stretches, maybe even marginally interesting stretches. All seasons must take on a shape, after all.

What's your prediction for the Nationals' record this season? Wait, don't answer that -- it doesn't really matter what the prediction is specifically. Your pick was somewhere between, say, "1962 Mets" and "Oh, pretty bad, like 90 losses," right? I think that pretty much covers the realistic range.

It's a range, at any rate. Let's do an experiment with this range. How about we look at the seasonal shape for some representative teams within this range -- from, say, the 2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119) to last year's Nats (71-91), with some other teams in between. We'll get to those other teams in a moment.

What follows below are the records of these teams at regular intervals; I'll break it down to every 20 games, since those are intervals used by Retrosheet for organizational purposes. I have to fudge a bit on the last interval since MLB uses a 162-game season. But I don't think that little accounting gesture strays too far from the goal of the experiment, which is to observe how these teams, ranging from 43 wins to 71 wins, performed in twenty-game breakouts.

2003 Detroit Tigers (43-119)

Split Record
Games 1-20 2-18
Games 21-40 7-13
Games 41-60 7-13
Games 61-80 3-17
Games 81-100 8-12
Games 101-120 4-16
Games 121-140 6-14
Games 141-162 6-16

Okay, this is about as wretchedly as a team can play. You see the two- and three-win stretches. While those aren't the worst twenty-game stretches we'll see in this post, it is hard to get much worse. There's a couple of 7-13 stretches thrown in, which seem sort of respectable in comparison, until we consider that's .350 ball. It's like winning 58 games in a full season. Eh, I suppose it does look good in comparison. The midseason 8-12 stretch stands as the team's high-point. That's 19 percent of the team's 43 wins accomplished in 12 percent of the team's games. It seems sort of hard to imagine such a horrific team having a better stretch than that, though I haven't really researched the matter. For all I know, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders might've rolled off eleven in a row (though I doubt it).

2004 Arizona Diamonbacks (51-111)

Split Record
Games 1-20 9-11
Games 21-40 7-13
Games 41-60 8-12
Games 61-80 5-15
Games 81-100 2-18
Games 101-120 5-15
Games 121-140 6-14
Games 141-162 9-13

This is the sucky team that time forgot. Three years after a World Series, two seasons after a division crown, a few months after Bob Brenly, and they fell this far. You don't see 51-win teams strolling 'round town very often, but here they are, galavanting with their fly wide open. Yet, they're like five percent less infamous than the Tigers from the year below and no one seems to remember them as a massively pathetic operation. Maybe the public went through '62 Mets-reference fatigue the season before.

Another explanation is that the '04 D-Bucks managed to start pretty okay: on the doorstep of .500 after twenty games, a .400 team after forty games, and then .400 after sixty games too. Not that there's anything especially dignified about .400 baseball, but that's a 65-win pace, and plenty of teams finish with 65 wins. Arizona really made those next eighty games count, because they had to rally a bit to reach fifty wins.

I guess the real question from this team is whether you think it realistic that the '07 Nats will have a 12-48 stretch. That's .200 baseball, and that's what the Diamondbacks played for nearly forty percent of an entire season. I would imagine this is very tough to do.

2005 Kansas City Royals (56-106)

Split Record
Games 1-20 5-15
Games 21-40 6-14
Games 41-60 8-12
Games 61-80 7-13
Games 81-100 11-9
Games 101-120 1-19
Games 121-140 8-12
Games 141-162 10-12

Imagine starting the season 11-29 and not even realizing you're still like six weeks away from your roughest stretch. Poor kids -- they went through seeing their manager fired early on, and then they went through a one and twenty dry spell long after that. You'd think they could have at least combined the two episodes!

Needless to say, this was an awkward season. Toss aside that 1-19 pothole for a moment, and you have a team that played .468 ball for about forty percent of its season starting with that 11-9 run. Turn that 1-19 into something like 5-15, and I think this is a possible(though perhaps pessimistic) shape for the '07 Nats, provided you move around a twenty-gamer here and there.

2006 Kansas City Royals (62-100)

Split Record
Games 1-20 5-15
Games 21-40 5-15
Games 41-60 6-14
Games 61-80 11-9
Games 81-100 8-12
Games 101-120 7-13
Games 121-140 10-10
Games 141-162 10-12

Really bad baseball is a tough chore to sustain for an entire season, as evidenced by last season's Royals. (When you lose 100 games annually, as the Royals do, you serve as a natural template of possible outcomes for these Nats.) One quarter of the way in, these fools were on pace to rival the '62 Mets; sixty games in, and they were still on track to match the '03 Tigers. Then they screwed up their chances for infamy by turning their season around.

Starting with their Games 61-80 interval, the '06 Royals went 46-56. That's .450 ball, a 73-win pace. They played at this pace for 102 games. To match the '03 Tigers, they would have had to have won negative three games the rest of the season, which doesn't seem all that possible even for the Kansas City Royals.

Anyway, the moral of the story here is that you can still lose big even if you play semi-respectable ball for the majority of the season. You just have to lose really, really big for a minority of the season.

2006 Chicago Cubs (66-96)

Split Record
Games 1-20 12-8
Games 21-40 5-15
Games 41-60 7-13
Games 61-80 5-15
Games 81-100 10-10
Games 101-120 13-7
Games 121-140 4-16
Games 141-162 10-12

By now, we've tip-toed past the historically awful teams and navigated on beyond the laughably bad ones. We've now reached the merely bad ones, and these Cubs are an entertaining version thereof. Can you imagine the '07 Nats having a 4-16 stretch? No? Okay, can you imagine them having a 13-7 stretch? That's might good baseball for a pretty extended period of time.

For nearly forty percent of their season (cobbled together in retrospect), the '06 Cubs played above-.500 ball. That's pretty much what separates this team from the ones above who had decent stretches: the decent stretches aren't .450, but are .500 or .515. Could the Nats put together sixty games, at any period in time (consecutive or split up), of 35-25? No? Well, while I'm certainly not saying that's the only way to get to 66 wins eventually, that's how this 66-win team did it.

2006 Washington Nationals (71-91)

Split Record
Games 1-20 7-13
Games 21-40 6-14
Games 41-60 14-6
Games 61-80 6-14
Games 81-100 11-9
Games 101-120 9-11
Games 121-140 8-12
Games 141-162 10-12

I trust we're familiar with this team. As April closed, I saw plenty of references to last April's record, which was substantially similar. (This April was a half-game better, as the Nats won their extra game played.) If the references are akin to subconscious fist-pumps of relief that this team won't be historically awful, that's cool. Aside from that (and the larger "We don't need to spend money to suck" point), however, I fail to see much relevance.

The '06 Nats started really poorly and then enjoyed a blisteringly hot stretch of twenty ballgames. You won't find in this post a better stretch than that 14-6 run in May-June, and I'd imagine not many losing teams play all that much better in any twenty-game interval. If the current Nats are in line with last year's Nats after forty games, is that a good thing? That was a team playing .333 ball who then kicked it up to .600 ball for a stretch. Not that the current Nats need to copy this specific shape, but could they do that? I'm not saying they can't, but I am saying it's quite a reversal.

At any rate, I fear the tenor of this post will come across as pessimistic. I don't mean it that way. But what I am saying is that when you have a 1-8 stretch, a subsequent 8-9 stretch really doesn't mean all that much. Unless you're historically bad, you're going to have stretches like that throughout the season.