In 2002, the Kansas City Royals won nine straight games. In 2003, the Kansas City Royals won nine straight games.
Last year's nine-game winning streak was completely different from this year's, though. That nine-game winning streak came in July (just after the All-Star break; this one came in April (with a little bit of March thrown in for good Opening Day measure). That nine-game winning streak came because the Royals hitters were just bludgeoning pitchers (they scored 64 runs in the nine games, and never fewer than five runs in a single game); this nine-game winning streak came because the Royals pitchers were mowing down hitters (they allowed 22 runs in the nine games, and won their first 1-0 game since 1997).
There's another big difference. When the Royals won nine straight in 2002, nobody really noticed, except for a few thousand Kansas Citians and a few hundred scattered expatriates who still pay attention to a franchise that hasn't been to the postseason in nearly two decades. How does a nine-game winning streak go something close to unnoticed?
When the streak began on July 13, the Royals were in fourth place, 17 games behind the first-place Twins. When it ended on July 20, the Royals were still in fourth place ... 15 games behind the first-place Twins.
Yet we seem to have decided that the 2003 Royals' nine-game winning streak is significantly more important than the 2002 Royals' nine-game winning streak.
This would have been a good question 48 hours ago, or even 24 hours ago. But now the Royals are 10-1 rather than 9-0 or 9-1, so let's alter the question a bit. Let's talk about teams that win 10 of their first 11 games ... or something close to that. Because we can all agree -- at least I hope we can all agree -- that the difference between 10-1 and 9-2 or 11-1 is insignificant.
So instead of looking at teams that started 10-1, let's look at teams that won eight of their first nine or nine of their first 10 or 10 of their first 11. Doing that, I think, will give us teams that enjoyed truly comparable starts to that of the 2003 Royals (merely considering wins and losses; runs scored and allowed is a completely different, and arguably more relevant, proposition).
Thanks to Sean Forman, the genius at baseball-reference.com, I was able to get the data without much trouble. What I got was the 51 teams since 1946 that have started a season 9-2, 10-1, or 11-0, along with their records at the end of that season. And for obvious reasons, I also compiled each team's record the season before the fast start.
First of all, what the Royals have done is both rare, and exceptionally rare. I'll get to the exceptionally rare in a few minutes. As for just plain old rare, since 1946 only 11 other teams have started a season by winning 10 of their first 11 games. Of those 11 teams, only one -- last year's Indians -- didn't finish the season with at least as many wins as losses (the next-worst 10-1 team was another Indians squad, as the 1966 Tribe finished 81-81).
But as I suggested earlier, 11 teams just aren't enough teams to tell us much. That's why I also asked Sean to list the teams that won nine of their first 11 games or 11 of their first 11. Only three teams started 11-0, which of course doesn't do much to expand the study. But 37 teams won nine of their first 11, and so that gives us a group of 52 teams ... and now I think we've got a group worth studying.
Of the 51 teams in the study, 14 of them had finished the previous season below .500. But only one of those 14 teams was worse than the 2002 Royals. Here are the five worst, with the Royals tossed in for illustrative purposes:
1988 Indians 61-101
2003 Royals 62-100
2001 Twins 69- 93
1989 Rangers 70- 91
1978 Tigers 74- 88
1981 Cardinals 88- 74
This is the exceptionally rare thing about the Royals, that they've started so well after playing so poorly just last year. If you're the curious sort, seeing the above table probably puts a question into your head ... but I'm going to make you wait a few minutes for the answer.
What kind of teams win nine, 10, or 11 of their first 11 games?
As you'd think, good teams. In the season before their fast starts, these 51 teams combined for a .534 winning percentage. In the season of their fast starts, these 51 teams combined for a .566 winning percentage.
As you may already have gathered, the average team improved its winning percentage by 32 points from the season before to the season of. Given a 162-game schedule, that's like improving from 87 wins to 92.
And that's almost exactly what we'd expect, if we assume that the fast start does not affect what comes afterward. That is to say, we're seeing almost exactly what we'd expect to see if these teams, after the fast start, played about as well as they'd played the year before.
So should we expect the Royals to return to their losing ways, and finish this season with just a slightly better record than last? Or are they a special case, with so much room for improvement?
Here's the table from above, with an extra column:
1988 Indians 61-101 78-84 +17
2003 Royals 62-100 ???
2001 Twins 69- 93 85-77 +16
1989 Rangers 70- 91 83-79 +13
1978 Tigers 74- 88 86-76 +12
1981 Cardinals 74- 88 94-68 +20
Yes, 1981 was a strike season, so the Cardinals' record is prorated from their strike-shortened 59-43. Even assuming they weren't really that good -- and they did win a World Series the very next season -- this table suggests the Royals are on track for a big improvement.
How big? Who knows. But after winning only 62 games in 2002, winning 72 in 2003 would mark a major step forward for this long-downtrodden franchise. And if history's any guide -- granted, we're talking about a small sample here -- then 72 wins looks to be well within the Royals' grasp.
Postscript: While we're at this, a word about the Giants is in order. While they don't fit precisely into my data because they've already started 12-1, we can still wedge them into the data at hand.
Last year, the Giants won 59 percent of their games. That's a lot; only eight teams in the study did better in the season before their fast start. Here are the five teams that finished closest to .590 in that previous season:
1966 Orioles 94-68 97-63 + 3
1955 Dodgers 92-62 98-55 + 6.5
1957 Braves 92-62 95-59 + 3
1992 Pirates 98-64 96-66 - 2
1998 Orioles 98-64 79-83 -19
OK, so there's a cautionary tale here. In 1998, the Orioles won nine of their first 11 games -- it was the third straight season in which they'd opened 9-2 -- but faltered thereafter, going 70-81 the rest of the way.
Like the Giants this year, the Orioles in 1998 were helmed by a new manager. That similarity aside, it's awfully hard to see these Giants finishing below .500 or anywhere close. They won 95 games last year, and I'll be somewhat surprised if they don't win as many this year.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.