Tuesday April 12th, 2011

With their 2-0 victory over Justin Verlander and the Tigers on Monday afternoon, the Rangers increased their franchise-best season-opening record to 9-1. They are just the sixth 9-1 team since the turn of the millennium, but as even a quick survey of the preceding five (the 2002 Indians, '03 Giants, Yankees, and Royals, and '09 Marlins) will reveal, a 9-1 start, while impressive, doesn't guarantee a team anything going forward.

Forty-two previous teams in major league history have opened a season 9-1. Just 20 of them finished in first place or made it to the postseason. If that comes as a surprise to those of you who read about the damning nature of an 0-5 or 0-7 beginning in my look at the slow starts of the Red Sox, Rays, and Astros last week, consider that the odds of making the playoffs are slim to start with. In the current alignment, just eight of 30 teams, less than 27 percent, make the postseason. From 1977-1993, it was four of 26, a hair more than 15 percent. Prior to expansion in 1961, it was just two of 16, or 12.5 percent. Measured against those odds, 47.6 percent of 9-1 teams making the postseason suddenly looks pretty good. Still, it's no guarantee.

That begs the question, how good of a start is a guarantee of a postseason berth? As I mentioned in the article linked above, only six of 11 10-0 teams have made the postseason, while none of the other five finished above third place, so clearly we have to go deeper into the season.

At 15 games we find two 19th century teams that went 15-0 and finished first, but just four of nine 14-1 teams made the postseason. At 20 games we again find two undefeated 19th century pennant winners and one 19-1 pennant winner from 1872. The last team to go 18-2 was the 1987 Brewers, who finished third. Just four of the seven 18-2 teams in major league history made the playoffs. At 25 games we find that eight of nine 21-4 teams finished first and the ninth finished second (albeit long before the wild card). However, of the eight teams with a better record after 25 games, just five made the postseason.

You have to go 34 games into the season to find anything close to a postseason guarantee from a hot start, though that is more than 20 percent into a 162 game season. Ten of the 11 teams that started with a record better than 27-7 finished in first place, the lone exception being the 1886 Detroit Wolverines, who started 27-6-1, but slumped in August and finished 2 1/2 games behind Cap Anson's Chicago White Stockings, who started 26-7-1.

To get to 28-6, the Rangers would have to go 19-5 over their next 24 games, a .791 pace. I'm confident they won't do that. The most recent team to start better than 27-7 was the world champion 1984 Tigers and the last team before them was the 1939 Yankees, who are in the discussion about the greatest teams of all time. The Rangers are a good team. They are the defending American League pennant winners and were the pre-season favorite in their division, but I have a hard time seeing them as an all-time great team.

Looking at the Rangers' 10 games to this point, six of them, all wins, came at home, where they they played .630 ball a year ago. They are a more reasonable 3-1 on the road, where they played at a .481 clip in 2010. Also, six of their 10 games so far have come against teams not expected to finish the year with winning records. Yes, Buck Showalter's Orioles finished strong last year and got off to a solid start of their own this season, going 6-1, the last of those wins the Rangers' only loss thus far this season, but Baltimore is also 2-3 over its last five games and, though improved, coming off a 96-loss season. The Mariners, meanwhile, lost 101 games a year ago and were lambs going to slaughter in Arlington, where they were, not surprisingly, swept.

What that leaves for Texas is a season-opening sweep of the Red Sox at home and Monday's defeat of Verlander on the road. Both were impressive, even given Boston's subsequent sweep at the hands of the Indians, and the Rangers are supposed to be impressive. There are no doubts about their ability to score, particularly in Texas. Some might expect them to miss having Cliff Lee in their starting rotation, and come October they well might, but it's worth noting that the Rangers had a 5 1/2 game lead in the AL West when they acquired Lee from the Mariners last July, which was the largest in baseball at the time.

The Rangers should win the AL West again this year, not because they got off to a 9-1 start, but because they're a good team in a division without a particularly strong rival. The 9-1 start will help, to be sure, but it's more symptom than cause, and in no way suggests that the 2011 Rangers are going to be among the best teams of the new decade, or any other. If we're still talking about their hot start three weeks from now, however, we may need to reassess their potential, but three weeks is a long time, particularly when the season is not yet two weeks old.

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