Thursday, May 25, 2017

Can't Get My Motor to Start

At what point does a slow start become a lost season? Is there a definitive, predictable date or place in the schedule  where a team playing .400 ball, or .300 ball, or worse, knows, absolutely if reluctantly knows, that it's not going to turn around, no matter what? Have the 2017 Giants reached that point, have they already passed it, or is there still time to make a run at the postseason? What do past seasons, and past slow starts, tell us about the Giants' chances today?

Coming off a once-encouraging road trip that began with two wins out of three in St Louis, the club continued its short trek across the midwest by dropping three of four in Chicago, finishing the seven-game swing at 3-4, and losing ground both in and out of the NL West division. After a 5-2 homestand that saw the Giants bookend a couple of tough losses with a five-game winning streak, it was possible to hope they'd return home within five games of the .500 mark and get a little payback for last October at Wrigley Field. Now, after three straight losses, clearly outplayed by the Cubs in all three of them, the Giants sit at 20-29. They'll need to go 25-16 over the next six weeks to reach .500 at the All-Star Break, which automatically puts a team in contention these days. Does anyone who follows this team closely think they're equipped, let alone likely, to do that? Another five-game win streak at home will do little to reverse the trend, if the team can't play .500 ball on the road.

How does this rank with the worst starts in Giants team history? Has any San Francisco ballclub ever shaken off a .400 (or worse) mark one-third into the season and won anything, or even come close?   Does history tell us it's already time to give up and find out who can play and who can't, or is Bruce Bochy's continuing stubborn optimism based on something more than, well, stubbornness?

We started thinking about this back on May 9, when the Giants sat at 11-23 (.324), the worst record in all baseball.  The statistical mavens who came up with "Wins Above Replacement (WAR)" typically peg "replacement level" in a given season somewhere in the .290-to-.310 range; that is, a player who's contributing no more than a 30% chance of winning to his team is a candidate for the metaphorical glue factory. A winning percentage even a little worse than the Giants' on May 9 would indicate, at least in theory, that the team would do just about as well if they simply released the entire roster and repopulated it with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats.

An ugly thought, that one, even as hyperbole. Since that day the Giants are 9-6, not exactly a ball of fire, but a short step in the right direction. Today we're not here to review whether the current cast of characters on the roster is capable of turning it around and making a postseason run at this point. We're looking over 59 seasons of San Francisco baseball, identifying the worst starts in that period, and determining whether the record shows it can even be done.

A few exceptionally bad seasons need no analysis or exegis here. The back-to-back nightmares of 1984 and 1985, the nadir of San Francisco Giants baseball, will not be covered, for example, nor will those mid-Seventies train wrecks (1972, 1974, 1976) or the rebuilding years of a decade ago. We'll focus on the Giants since the 1986 renaissance, with emphasis on the "Sabean years" from 1997-2004 and the return to quality form beginning in 2009.

We've always held the start of the 1991 season up as the worst of the worst. A team expected to contend instead began the year 12-29, an execrable .293, true replacement level and five games worse than this year's model. At the time, manager Roger Craig was defiant: "We're gonna turn this thing around yet," he promised. "You all will be back here in a couple of months asking us how we did it."

Well, they didn't, and indeed it would surprise us if any team, in any league in any year, ever overcame a sub-.300 start after one-fourth of the season. But that Giants team did go 63-58 the rest of the year, and even reached .500 in August. Sadly, good ol' Roger had already managed his last winning team in San Francisco, he just didn't know it.

That would be the previous year's team, 1990, which combined a bad start (11-20) with a terrific start by the division-rival Cincinnati Reds (22-8) to fall out of contention before school even let out. Amazingly, that '90 team, led by two rookie pitchers and the "Pacific Coast Sock Exchange" (remember?) went on a 47-28 tear and got within four games of the lead in late July before settling back and finishing at a more tepid, but respectable, 85-77. This year's team had the same record 31 games in; we're sure many of you would eagerly take a 85-77 finish now. (Then again, that benighted 1980 squad opened at 11-20 too, and may as well have gone no further.)

None of the Giants' three World Championship teams had to overcome a wretched start like this, and the winning teams of 1997-2003 didn't either. The 2001 squad opened 15-15, then reeled off seven wins in eight games and was in the thick of the race the rest of the way. The 2012 champions also started 15-15 but by this point were 26-23 and on a steady climb. The 2013 team started 18-12, same as the 2010 squad, but didn't deliver the goods, though they stayed in contention most of the way. The Sabean era, as a whole, has seen a few .500 starts, many above-.500 starts, and a few .600 starts, the best years being 2002 and 2014 (19-11), and 1999, 2010, 2013, and 2014 (18-12).

It's not really in anyone's best interest to remember 2004, a season that ended as rudely as one can end. But the Giants did overcome a bad start to get within one game at the finale. They opened 13-18, which is barely .400, and on May 19 were still slouching along at 16-24, similar to this years' mark-- and they had just endured a ten-inning walk-off loss at Wrigley Field, too.

Then they came home and won ten straight. Three awful losses in Arizona dropped them one game below .500, after which they went 17-6, took over first place, extended their lead to three games, and stayed in the fight the rest of the way, finishing at 91-71, two games back in both the division and wild-card races. After that rotten opening quarter, they went 75-47 (.620) and came within one out of the postseason.

So the good news is, yes, it can be done, and a Giants team has done it. The bad news is, in 59 years of baseball, one Giants team has done it.

Stay strong, people.


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