True to form, I read the quote most recently from new Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Tracy, as he struggles to find victories with a Bucs roster offering considerably less talent than his former Dodgers' clubs.
On the other side of the coin are the April surprises – those teams who sprint out of the gate. These early successes provide ample opportunities for the press to play up what are usually really just small sample sizes and pose the question time and time again, "What if?".
The six-team National League Central has one of those sprinting squads in 2006, the Cincinnati Reds. Make that the first-place Cincinnati Reds.
Yet, this isn't the first time the Reds have been living in the standings penthouse. In fact, in 2002, Cincinnati led the NL Central from April 26 through June 18, a period of seven weeks. Two years later, the Reds were on top of the Division from May 24 to June 11.
Just as here in 2006, the resurgent Reds of 2002 and 2004 were each one of the top stories in all of baseball at the time. But, you probably remember how those two squads finished – not too well – averaging a 77-85 record overall.
Curious about how the National League Central has played out for each of these assorted fast-starters, I looked at the number of team wins and the Divisional standings at four spots of the 2000 through 2005 seasons – Opening Day through May 15, May 16 until the All-Star Game, from the break to August 15 and from August 16 until all 162 games were played.
Given their on-going success, it is not surprising that in aggregate over these six years, the St. Louis Cardinals won the most games in the NL Central in all four segments. They have totaled 575 victories during that span, far ahead of the Houston Astros, next at 517.
However, there are a few surprises. Those Cincinnati Reds have the second-best Opening-to-May 15 record over those years, winning 116 games to the Cardinals' 126. Then reality hits. From May 16 until the All-Star Game, only the Pirates have won fewer games than the Reds – and that is just by two games – 132 to 130.
Sadly, the recent history of the Pirates doesn't play out Tracy's hopes for a strong finish. Since 2000, Pittsburgh has logged the fewest wins in the Division after August 15, with 239. The Cardinals are tops with 340. However, truth be known, the Bucs also have the least wins from Opening Day through the All-Star break since 2000.
Five different clubs – every one in the Division except Pittsburgh – have taken a turn registering the most wins in the first six weeks of the season. Yet, when all the smoke cleared, only three teams, St. Louis, Chicago and Houston, were able to accumulate the most victories in any single season.
So, will the 2006 Reds break the mold or fade as in the past? To recycle another tired cliché, "That's why the play the games!"
But, I will leave you with one reminder. We seem to be heading into that time of year when Tony La Russa's club makes its move and the Divisional pretenders fall by the wayside.
To borrow some football lingo, the Cardinals own the second and fourth quarters. In only one of the past six years did the Cardinals not register the most wins among the NL Central Division combatants between May 16 and the All-Star break. (Same with the home stretch to close the season.)
Is there any reason La Russa won't continue to relentlessly and successfully drive his club to win game after game and series after series again? The data from the recent past suggests not.
The raw data follows. First are the wins during each of the four periods, followed by the cumulative standings at the Break, on August 15 and at the end of the season. Teams are listed in the same order in each table, based on their overall records from 2000 through 2005.
Period data (number of wins)
Cumulative data (number of wins)
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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