Commentary

No need to panic about Red Sox -- yet

Updated: April 14, 2011, 12:31 PM ET
By Jeremy Lundblad | ESPNBoston.com

At some point, concern becomes panic. The trick is knowing when.

After the Boston Red Sox started 0-4 (and then 0-5 and 0-6), it was suddenly inescapable that that no team had done that and won the World Series.

Yet, three teams have won it all after a 2-9 start. It's hard to see how 2-9 is at all preferable to 0-4.

The point is, if you dig deep enough, you could probably find precedent to prove that every team won't win the World Series. When does that information become meaningful?

The idea that you can't start 0-4 and win the World Series is illogical. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, 38 of the past 39 World Series champs lost four straight at some point. This was merely a four-game losing streak to start the season.

Teams have made the postseason after an 0-4 start. Did the 1999 Arizona Diamondbacks really lose in the NLDS because they started 0-4? Of course not.

How about the 1995 Cincinnati Reds? In a season shortened to 144 games, they started 0-6. In fact, the Reds were 1-8 before climbing all the way back to win the NL Central by nine games. Did they lose in the NLCS because of that bad start? Or did it have more to do with running into Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine?

No matter the expectations entering a season, the target in April is the postseason, not the World Series. But as the hole the Red Sox are digging gets deeper, how much longer until the ladder won't reach the top?

At 0-4 -- and even 0-6 -- panic was premature in Boston. Even at 2-9, with the worst record in the majors entering Thursday, it's far too soon to pull the plug.

There have been six teams to start 2-9 and reach the postseason, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. A closer look at three of those teams reveals a bit about what it might take.

In 2001, the Oakland A's didn't get over .500 for good until July 8. That team made history with 45 wins in its final 55 games. Its 58-17 record after the All-Star break was the best since the 1954 Indians went 55-16.

It took the 1991 Minnesota Twins until June 3 to reach .500 for the first time after that 2-9 start. They won a franchise-record 15 straight to start June. In all, they won 21 of their first 23 that month. By the end of the season, they were World Series champions.

The 1951 New York Giants actually started 2-12. They'd climbed to 16-17 on May 20. That's when Willie Mays made his major league debut. In August, they'd win 16 in a row, the longest streak in the NL since 1935. Even with all that, the Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers needed a one-game playoff to decide the NL champs. That one ended with Bobby Thompson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

As improbable as those three turnarounds were, nothing comes close to the 1914 Boston Braves. Their 2-9 record was just the start of their woes. After losing both games of a Fourth of July doubleheader, the Braves were 26-40 and 15 games out of first. They proceeded to go 68-19 the rest of the way and won the World Series.

But the Red Sox are still only five games out.

They don't need to make history to turn this season around. A 15-game winning streak or an unstoppable second half aren't essential. Nor must Ryan Kalish become Willie Mays.

At least not yet.

Impact on Playoff Projection

It's easy to say that 2-9 is just an inevitable slump that happens to be at the season's start. This makes two significant presumptions: (1) The slump will end soon; (2) It won't happen again later in the season.

Using 10,000 simulations, AccuScore's initial projection for the Red Sox was 94.9 wins and a 66.8 percent chance at the playoffs. At 2-9, that win estimate has fallen to 85.1 wins. The playoff percentage almost been halved, now 36.2.

It goes without saying, but the sooner the Red Sox start winning, the most the percentages fall in their favor. But even if Boston wins its next 10 games, the Red Sox would still be projected to make the playoffs only 50.8 percent of the time.

The real magic number is 94. If history is a guide, that's how many wins Boston needs for the postseason. In the Wild Card era, no AL team has won 94 games and been left out of the playoffs.

That would mean a 92-59 record from here on out, a 60.9 winning percentage. AccuScore gives the Red Sox a 16.3 percent chance of 94 wins.

Reasons for Optimism

Amidst all the negativity of a 2-9 start, there are reasons for optimism. As ugly as that record looks, the Red Sox are only five games out of first place.

And wouldn't 2-9 be more alarming if Boston was actually playing well? It may seem counterintuitive, but the upside of a 6.77 ERA and .230 BA is that those numbers do have to improve.

The Red Sox won't hit .192 with runners in scoring position this season, nor will opponents hit .333 with RISP.

The offense and pitching might even click in the same game. In their three quality starts, the Red Sox have scored a total of six runs. In the four games in which the offense has managed at least five runs, the pitching staff has allowed an average of more than 10 runs.

Just as nine losses in 11 games is magnified by the start of the season, so too are player slumps. Consider the two most prominent examples in the Red Sox lineup.

Kevin Youkilis also had a pronounced slump last April, but it flew a bit under the radar since he was hitting .389 after five games. In the next 12 games, he hit .174. That's even worse than his current .182 average through 11 games. Despite that early 2010 slump, he still had the AL's third best OPS at the time of his injury in August.

Last season, Carl Crawford went through a 16-game stretch in which he hit .186 -- not far off his current .152 average after 11 games. He hit .323 for the rest of the season, driving in 32 runs in 48 starts, to finish with a .302 season average. To duplicate that season average, Crawford would have to hit just .319 from here on.

With wins on Friday and Saturday, the Red Sox would be 4-9 -- right where they were last season. From that point on, Boston went 85-64, nearly equal to New York (86-64) and Tampa Bay (86-63). That's despite an almost constant string of injuries.

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.

Jeremy Lundblad

ESPN Stats and Information

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