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Wednesday, April 6, 2011
The ugly truth about 0-4 starts

You know your team is in trouble when …

You're four games into the season, and you're already playing the old "There's A Lot of Baseball Still To Be Played" card.

Well, here's a shocker: The Red Sox and Rays -- each of them off to 0-and-4 starts, coincidentally enough -- both found themselves rolling that trick out of the deck Tuesday. Hey, of course they did. It's mandatory this time of year.

Here we go. First, let's hear from David Ortiz, via ESPN Boston: "We don't have just [16] games like the NFL, or 82 like the NBA, you know. We've got 162, so you can figure things out, because this is a hard game to play and you've got to go day by day."

And now it's Johnny Damon's turn, through the miracle of the St. Petersburg Times: "We have 158 games to go. It's not like football. You go 0-4 in football, it's like losing 40 straight baseball games."

Now technically speaking, they're both right about that. This isn't the NFL. This isn't the NBA. There's still plenty of time. That's a fact.

Still, these teams should be pretty darned terrified by what 0-4 starts tend to lead to. I did the math. And it's hard to believe that four games in a long baseball season could mean what those computations seem to suggest they mean for these clubs. But the evidence is hard to refute. So here goes:

• OK, first the good news: Six teams in the division-play era have started 0-4 and still made it to the postseason -- the '99 Diamondbacks, '95 Reds. '85 Cardinals, '77 Phillies, '74 Pirates and '69 Twins. So it can be done.

• And if these teams are looking for true inspiration, they should look back at the 1977 season. The Red Sox and Phillies both lost their first four games that year. The Red Sox bounced back and won 97 games. The Phillies rebounded to win 101. So that's clear proof that if you're a great team, there's still lots of time to prove how great you are.

• But now here's what's puzzling. Teams are recovering from 0-4 starts much less often these days than they did back in 1977. In the 11 non-strike seasons from 1976 through 1987, a half-dozen teams won 90-plus games after 0-4 starts. And two of those six -- the '77 Phillies and '85 Cardinals -- won over 100 games.

• In this era, however, it hasn't worked that way. Between 2000 and 2010, 15 teams started off 0-4 or worse. Not one of them won 90 games. In fact, of the 25 teams that were 0-4 after four games in the wild-card era (1995-2000), only one righted the ship and won 90-plus. That was the '99 Diamondbacks, who went 100-62. OK, asterisk alert: Most likely, the '95 Reds (who went 85-59 in a strike-shortened 144-game season) also would have gotten to 90 wins, too. But they can blame the NLRB or someone for failing to make this list.

• As we've heard from the Elias Sports Bureau, no matter how far you go back in time to look at 0-4 starts, the news is all bad. No team has ever won the World Series after losing its first four games. And only those '85 Cardinals even made it to the World Series after going 0-4.

• Finally, here are the grim facts for the Red Sox and Rays to ponder about the 25 previous teams that started 0-4 in the wild-card era:

Inside my brain, there's a voice -- one that doesn't sound anything like Big Papi's voice, incidentally -- that tells me this makes no sense. As the Brewers pointed out on their game notes Tuesday (after their own 0-4 start, in a related development), every team that made the playoffs last season had a four-game losing streak at some point. So why should it matter if it came in the first week of the season?

Excellent point. But the facts say what the facts say. And the facts are saying: This is big trouble.

So maybe Johnny Damon is right -- that going 0-4 isn't the same as going 0-40. But obviously, it FEELS kind of like going 0-40. And that's a bad, bad sign -- even for teams as talented as the Rays and Red Sox.