It's still early, but history is against winless Red Sox, Rays and Astros
For many teams, the major league season is just five games old, yet three of those teams -- the Red Sox, Rays and Astros -- are still searching for their first victory. To suggest that any team has reason to worry after such a small dry spell to start the season seems absurd, but here are the facts:
In major league history, which dates to 1871, 110 teams have started a season 0-5. Just two of those 110 went on to make the postseason, less than two percent. Those two teams were the 1974 Pirates and 1995 Reds, both of whom actually started their seasons 0-6. Thirty-nine teams extended their season-opening losing streaks to seven games. Only one of those clubs finished as high as third place.
This is the history that looms over the winless Red Sox, Rays, and Astros. To be fair, even a third-place finish would be considered a triumph for the Astros, and though the Rays have won the AL East in two of the last three seasons, they're not expected to do much better than third place this year, either.
Of course, the reason for those relatively modest expectations for the Rays is that the Red Sox were considered by many to be the best team in baseball coming into the season. All but one of SI.com's 12 baseball "experts," myself included,
Mathematically speaking, fretting about an 0-5 or 0-7 start to a 162 game season is the height of absurdity. At 0-5, the Red Sox are only two games behind the Yankees, and four behind the Orioles, who should be better than their 66-96 finish last year, but seem unlikely to even finish with a winning record despite their strong finish last season and 4-1 start to this one.
Speaking of which, 105 teams have started a season 5-0. Thirty-six of those teams went on to make the postseason (12 went on to win the World Series and six others played before the World Series was born in 1903), but another 27 finished in fourth place or below, with the other 42 finishing third or second but without claiming the wild card (when available). Even if you look at 10-0 starts, just six of 11 teams made the postseason, while the other five all finished in third place or worse. So, if going 5-0 to start a season isn't terribly significant, why does going 0-5 seem to be so predictive of an inability to make the postseason?
It's not the length of the streak itself. In 2010 alone, all six division winners had five-game losing streaks at some point during the season. The NL Central Champion Reds had two, the eventual American League pennant winning Rangers had an additional six-game losing streak, the eventual world champion Giants had an additional seven-game losing streak, and the NL wild card Braves had a nine-game losing streak. It's not the early deficit in the standings, either. Last year's Giants erased a five-game deficit in the NL West over a 10-day stretch in late August and early September.
Rather, what's significant is the timing. That seems counterintuitive. No five-game losing streak should be easier to compensate for than one made so early in the season. Perhaps it is because teams tend to start their seasons at full strength, thus making an inability to win one of their first five games of the season so revealing. A five-game losing streak mid-season can have an obvious cause. Perhaps a rotation ace is on the disabled list, the lineup is in a slump, or the players are simply beaten up and worn down from the long, hard slog of that 162-game season. At the start of the season, however, arms and legs should be fresh and everyone ought to be present and accounted for.
Let's take a quick look at those 1974 Pirates and 1995 Reds, the two teams that managed to make the postseason despite 0-5 starts. The '74 Pirates started 0-6 and 2-10. They won just a third of their games in April and were 18-32 (.360) on June 7. They then won nine of their next 11 on their way to going 70-42 (.625) the rest of the way and winning the NL East by 1 1/2 games with an 88-74 record. The 1995 Reds, meanwhile, opened the season 0-6 and 1-8, but quickly turned things around from there with a six-game winning streak. That season was abbreviated to 144 games when the players' strike delayed Opening Day, but by the end of May, the Reds were 20-11 (.645) and played over .600 ball for the next three months before slumping in September. Despite cooling off, they won the NL Central by nine games with an 85-59 record, the equivalent of a 95-win season over 162 games.
In the case of the '74 Pirates, their 0-5 start proved predictive as the team was awful for more than two months before mounting a near-miraculous turnaround that defies easy explanation. That leaves the '95 Reds as the only team in baseball history that was able to shake off an 0-5 start as a fluke and surge on to the postseason. Again, that's one team out of 110. Those are bad odds for the Red Sox and a disappointing reality check for the Astros and Rays.