Don't Worry, Braves Fans! (Yet...)

Don't hang your head, yet, Bobby! It's only been 7 games!

As the Braves enter their second week of games, I feel that it is worth adding a dash of perspective to the doom-and-gloom that has been hovering over these parts lately. Let's think back to a year ago. After 2 weeks of the 2009 season, do you remember which teams were in playoff position? I bet you don't. Here are the 9 teams who would have made the playoffs (or been tied for a spot) after Week 2 of 2009:

That's right. Only 1 of the 8 eventual playoff teams (the Dodgers) was in playoff position after 2 weeks. You could literally do a better job by picking teams at random. Only 2 other 2009 playoff teams (the Cardinals and Yankees) were even above .500 at that point. The Red Sox and Twins were 6-6. The Phillies were 5-6. The Rockies were 4-7. The Angels were 4-8.

This may seem obvious, but it really isn't when your team is playing poorly: a bad two-week stretch is not a death sentence, even (especially) if it occurs at the beginning of the season. Likewise, getting off to a hot start is no guarantee of future success. Just ask the 2009 Blue Jays or Padres.

Lots of fun charts and graphs after the jump...

To see just how big of a difference there was between a team's performance in the first 2 weeks and its performance over the whole year, I plotted each team's Week 2 winning percentage versus its final winning percentage. In the graph below, the further a team is above the black line, the more it overachieved in the first 2 weeks. Likewise, the further below the black line, the more it underachieved.


As you can see, there is a huge amount of variation. Six of the 8 playoff teams underperformed their eventual records in the first 2 weeks. In addition, all 9 of the teams that were in playoff position after Week 2 played worse the rest of the year, in many cases much worse. And it's not just a case of regression to the mean, either--of the 12 teams that were over .500 after Week 2, 5 finished under .500. Similarly, of the of the 12 teams that were under .500 after 2 weeks, 6 finished above .500.

Another way of looking at this issue is to consider the difference between a team's final winning percentage and the winning percentage it had after Week 2. Here is a graph of the differences for the 2009 NL. Positive numbers means the team played better after Week 2, and negative numbers mean the team played worse after Week 2. (Click on the image to enlarge it if you need to.)


Here is the same graph for the 2009 AL:


What these graphs should tell you is that a team's record in the first 2 weeks is usually not indicative of its final record. Seven teams experienced a winning percentage swing of .200 or more, which is a huge amount--a 32-game difference over a full season. Eighteen teams experienced a swing of .100 or more points. In fact, the average difference (positive or negative) was .136 points, or about a 22-game difference over a full season. For you statistics nerds out there, the standard deviation was 0.161.

At this point, if you haven't already closed your browser or started listening to Joe Morgan's Greatest Hits, you may be wondering if the 2009 season was just a fluke. Well, it was pretty fluky, but it was far from a complete fluke. I looked at data from the last 3 seasons (2007-2009) to try to get a more complete picture. First, I looked at how the 24 teams that made the playoffs in those years were doing after Week 2:


Over 40% of eventual playoff teams were under .500 after 2 weeks. I wonder how agonized their fanbases were?Only 29% of playoff teams were in playoff position after Week 2, and that's counting teams that were tied for a spot. These percentages are almost exactly the same as the overall averages. That means that eventual playoff teams were doing no better than average after 2 weeks.

Here's the same chart for Contenders (teams that finished at or above .500 but did not make the playoffs):


Interestingly, these good but not great teams were doing much better after 2 weeks than the teams who actually finished ahead of them. Nearly half were in playoff position as of Week 2, and nearly 3/4 were .500 or better. What this seems to imply is that good teams are less likely to get off to a bad start than great teams are. If anyone can offer an explanation as to why this might be, I'd be interested to hear it.

Here's the same chart for teams that finished below .500:


As you probably expected, most bad teams got off to bad starts. Still, 46% were at or above .500 after Week 2, and 17% were in playoff position. That's a large amount of overachieving. Another way of putting this is that 1 in 6 bad teams started the season very well before their true (lack of) talent caught up to them.

Putting this all together, I think we can safely say that a team's record after 2 weeks is not a good indicator of its eventual record.  In other words, the world does not end if a team is not doing well after 2 weeks of the season. So please, do not worry or gripe or rend your clothing if the Braves are 4-7 or 5-6 after the Rockies series.

Of course, that sort of begs the question: When should we start worrying or griping or rending our clothing?

To find out, I looked at the standings after various points of the past 3 seasons. I then compared these standings to the final standings from those years. Basically, I'm trying to find the point when a team that is in playoff position is much more likely to actually make the playoffs than a team that is below .500. Or in other words, at what point should we start to actually believe a team's record?

For this graph, I found all the teams that were in playoff position (counting ties) after Weeks 1, 2, 4, 8, and 12. I then determined what percentage of those teams actually went on to make the playoffs. For reference, 27% of all teams (8/30) make the playoffs and about another 28% contend for a playoff spot. The remaining 45% of teams finish below .500.


After Week 2, a team in playoff position is no more likely to make the playoffs than any other team. After Week 4, however, nearly half of all teams in playoff position make the playoffs. By Week 8, only 4% of playoff-positioned teams end up under .500.

Here's the same graph for teams that are above .500 but not actually in playoff position:


Teams that are contending after Week 2 are no different from the average team. As the season goes on, there does not appear to be any particular trend. A third of contending teams fall off and finish under .500, even after Week 12. Somewhere between 1/6 and 1/4 of contending teams rise up and make the playoffs.

Finally, here's the same graph for teams that are under .500 during the season:


A team that is under .500 after Week 2 still stands a perfectly average chance of making the playoffs--no different from the chances of a team that is in playoff position. As the season goes on, though, an under-.500 team's playoff chances dwindle, from 19% after Week 4 to only 7% after Week 12.

To sum up:

  • A team's record after 2 weeks is not a good indicator of its final record. So to all of you who are panicking after 7 games: chill out!
  • You should not even start worrying about a team's performance until at least 4 weeks have gone by. And probably more.
  • A team that is struggling after 8 weeks still has a decent (~15%) chance of righting the ship and making the playoffs. If the Braves are under .500 after 8 weeks, we should not give up hope.
  • On the flip side, a team that is in playoff position after Week 8 is only a slight favorite to make the playoffs. These teams, however, almost never finish under .500, so if the Braves are in playoff position after 8 weeks, they should at least contend for the rest of the year.

I hope this article helped cheer you up after last night's game. It's too bad there's no game tonight, but we're back on the field tomorrow. Most importantly, the Braves are still only 3-4 despite how badly they've played. If the team plays anywhere near its potential for the last 155 games, we'll have nothing to worry about.

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