The Importance of a Quick Start

You can sense it now, can’t you? How tantalizingly close we are to Opening Day; how in little more than a week games will be played that count. First pitch at Dodger Stadium on April 6 is scheduled for 1:10pm, a game that had plenty of storylines already before this weeks article describing locker room strife between the pitching rotation of San Diego and former Padre backstop Yasmani Grandal.

With the start of the season will come the end of discussing A.J. Preller’s grand experiment in the abstract. It will no longer matter what projection models say, it will only matter what actually occurs on the field. Speaking of those projections, the Padres are projected, depending on where you look, to be within a game or so of a Wild Card and finish 2nd in the NL West. Most of these projections rightfully have the Nationals and Dodgers as runaway favorites and plug in 3 NL Central teams into the playoffs. Looking at Fangraphs predictions, the Padres will miss the playoffs by 1 game to the Cubs, a team that will likely be without one of (if not the) best player on their roster for the first few weeks. It remains to be seen whether the Cubs will regret that decision though it is worth noting that the Cubs play 10 of their 22 April games against playoff teams from a year ago, plus 3 against the Padres and includes a week long road trip to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

All of this is to say that the Padres can ill afford to get off to a slow start to the season. Let me preface this by saying that it is a bit of a fallacy to put any more weight on April vs any other month. The fact of the matter is, one bad month, regardless of where it comes from, is a disaster. For example, the last time the Padres started off above .500 in the month of April was 2010 (15-8). That season they won 90 games which, with the new Wild Card rules and based on this years projections, would easily make the playoffs. They of course didn’t, thanks in part to a sub .500 September.

Nevertheless, winning consistently over 162 games begins in April. Winning can be contagious. It helps if you catch it early.

Looking at the 2014 playoff teams (for reference, they are: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates, Giants, Orioles, Tigers, Angels, A’s, and Royals) only one team played below .500 in April (the Pirates, at 10-16 who made up that poor month in June going 17-10 and September going 17-9). It is the hallmark of a playoff team to start, if not hot, to at least not stumble out of the gate. And considering the amount of player turnover the Padres have, I think it’s even more important than it ordinarily would be.

The Padres have a lot of new faces and a lot of new personalities. Anybody who has played a team sport can tell you, it helps when the team gels together. The faster that gel can occur, the better. The one universal trait all winning teams happening to have is that they have “great locker room guys” and “a bunch of guys just having fun.” Or some version of that. The problem is in assuming that you can create a “good locker room” and that will lead to winning. In fact, the opposite is true. Nothing brings a locker room together faster than winning. Conversely, nothing tears a locker room apart more than losing.

This is merely anecdotal evidence but a look at the last two major lineup overhauls, where teams came in with high expectations due to off-season player acquisitions only to fall on their face once the opening gun went off, can show the challenge and importance of a good April.

The 2013 Toronto Blue Jays spent that offseason acquiring the likes of Josh Johnson, Mark Buerhle, Jose Reyes and 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. They were predicted by many to make the playoffs, most believing they’d win the East. They were decimated by injuries to both their starting rotation and to Jose Reyes. They started the season 10-17 and finished dead last with 74 wins.

The 2012 Marlins also obtained Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle as well as Heath Bell, Carlos Zambrano and Aaron Rowand. Wanting to put a good team on the field to open their new ballpark, the Marlins completely revamped their roster only to see it go 8-14 to start the season. And despite a scorching month of May where they posted a 21-8 record, the Marlins finished with only 69 wins and dismantled the roster.

Again, these are only anecdotal stories. And I think you could argue the Padres had a better foundation to build off of than these two teams. But winning the off-season doesn’t equate to winning in April.

The Padres play 17 games against NL West opponents in April (Dodgers – 6; Giants – 4; Rockies -3; Diamondbacks – 3). Their only non-NL West series is against the Cubs (who may or may not be with Kris Bryant) and the Astros. 23 games in total.

There is an old adage in baseball that says you can’t win the division in April.

But you can lose it.

 

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With the season upon us, hopefully a more regular posting schedule will follow. You can follow me on Twitter @LeftCoastBias or comment below. My attention will be squarely on the NCAA Tournament for as long as Arizona is in it so consider yourself warned! #BearDown

 

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