Friday April 10th, 2015

The first series of the 2015 season are in the books, and while there have been some impressive performances already, from Adrian Gonzalez’s home-run barrage to numerous near–no-hitters and outstanding defensive plays, one stands out above the rest. In the first three games of the season, the Tigers swept their series against the Twins by a combined score of 22–1, putting Detroit's average margin of victory at seven runs per game and giving them a +21 run differential after just three games.

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Why is that significant? Since 1900, only 15 other teams have boasted a run differential of +20 or better after the first three games of the season. That’s 15 teams out of 2,422 team seasons, or 0.6%. And what happened to those teams? Fourteen of them finished the season with winning records, and nine of them went to the postseason. Of the six that didn’t, three won 88 games or more (and would have made the playoffs under the current two wild-card structure). Only the 1951 White Sox and 1970 Angels were mediocre, and only the 2001 Rockies had a losing record. Those Rockies, of course, played those first three games at home, where they did have a winning record that season. Together, those 15 teams compiled a .585 winning percentage, which translates to a 95-win season.

No team has outscored their opponents by 20 runs or more in the first three games of the season since the Giants beat what proved to be a very good Dodgers team by scores of 9–2, 12–0 and 3–0 to start the 2002 campaign. All those Giants did was win the National League pennant and come six outs from winning the World Series. Here’s the full list of the previous 15 teams to finish the first three games of the season with a run differential of +20 or better:

year team Differential finish notes
2002 Giants +22 95–66 NL champions
2001 Rockies +21 73–89  
2000 Cardinals +22 95–67 NL Central champs
1995 Mariners +20 79–66 AL West champs
1995 Red Sox +23 86–58 AL East champs
1978 Brewers +29 93–69  
1977 Royals +22 102–60 AL West champs
1974 Dodgers +23 102–60 NL champs
1970 Twins +20 98–64 AL West champs
1970 Angels +21 86–76  
1951 White Sox +27 81–73  
1942 Red Sox +22 93–59  
1940 Dodgers +22 88–65  
1929 Cubs +20 98–54 NL champs
1905 Giants +25 105–48 World Series champs

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As rare as having a run differential of +20 or better after three games may be, however, allowing just one run through the first three games of the season is even rarer. The Tigers are just the fifth major league team ever to be that stingy through the first three games. It never happened in the deadball era. It never even happened in the 19th century (though it’s worth noting that the 1873 Baltimore Marylands of the National Association allowed 77 runs through the first three games—three games later, having allowed another 75, they disbanded). It did, however, happen twice during the piching-dominated 1960s, and it happened again just two years ago, when the Nationals beat the Marlins 2–0, 3–0, and 6–1 in their opening series. This rare feat, however, would seem to tell us more about the Twins than the Tigers, as none of the previous four teams to allow just one run through the first three games—the '63 Cardinals, '69 Padres, '79 Astros and '13 Nationals—made the playoffs.

The Twins, meanwhile, are the ninth team to fail to score more than one run through the first three games of the season. Of the previous six from the expansion era, not one finished with a winning record, and three finished with the worst record in their league. Here are the previous eight, including their run differential from their first three games.

year team differential finish notes
2013 Marlins -10 62–100 Last in NL
1988 Orioles -17 54–107 Last in MLB
1979 Braves -9 66–94  
1969 Astros -5 81–81  
1968 Dodgers -5 76–86  
1963 Mets -16 51–111 Last in MLB
1937 Braves -5 79–73  
1933 Braves -4 83–71  

Still, even the Twins’ futility is not as significant as the Tigers’ dominance, as those 1930s Braves teams (though they were known as the Bees in '37) both finished with winning records, and the '69 Astros finished at .500. Worth noting here: Not all of the above teams went 0–3 to start the season. The '68 Dodgers beat the Mets, 1–0, in the third game of the season, putting their lone run in that stretch to good use. Also worth noting is the presence of the '88 Orioles, who lost 21 games before registering their first win.

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But even with those 1930s Braves teams having bucked the trend, that’s not a list any team wants to be on. Worse yet, the Twins' one run was unearned, something that wasn’t true of any of those other eight teams, making the Twins the only team in major league history not to score an earned run in their first three games.

The Tigers are not the first team not to allow one, however. The 1963 Cardinals didn’t allow a run of any kind in their first three games, the only team ever to open the season with three straight shutouts (and they were complete-game shutouts at that, twirled by Ernie Broglio and Ray Washburn against the second-year Mets and Curt Simmons against the Phillies, who released him three years earlier).

The start of the 2015 season hasn’t been perfect for Detroit. Its closer, Joe Nathan, hit the disabled list with a Grade 1 flexor strain in his pitching elbow, and Justin Verlander opened the season on the DL due to a triceps strain. The latter injury has forced Kyle Lobstein into the rotation for at least one start, and optimism about the expected performances of fourth starter Alfredo Simon—who is starting in Cleveland on Friday—and the bullpen remains low.

Still, history tells us that, regardless of the quality of their opponent, teams rarely start their seasons with as dominant a performance as the Tigers’ in the first three games of the season, and when they do, it’s typically an indication that they’re a playoff-caliber team. Detroit, coming of four straight AL Central titles, seems likely to be another data point in support of that fact.

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