For Some Teams and Players the Season is Getting Late Early Already

The baseball season is long, lasting 162 games and more than six months, but there is a rhythm to it, just as there is a rhythm to most baseball games. On Opening Day in late March or early April the season ahead seems almost infinite in both length and possibilities. Experienced baseball fans and analysts are quick to caution about reading too much into exceptionally fast starts by players or teams. Serious fans know that a team that wins seven of its first ten games or a hitter who has three home runs in the first 12 games are not guaranteed to be destined to greatness.

After about twenty games or so, however, something interesting happens. The numbers begin to take on more meaning as trends become discernible making it easier to determine which players may have lost a step or have become legitimately better and what off-season roster moves will work out. Obviously, it is a long season in which games and championships are usually decided in the margins, but these general trends become visible at around this point. The line between the sample size being too small and real trends becoming apparent is not altogether obvious. As Yogi Berra might say, the season gets late early sometimes.

The 2011 baseball season is now transitioning from being too early to put much stock in any statistics to being at a place where we can begin to make some judgments. This is good news for several teams, notably the Philadelphia Phillies, Colorado Rockies and Cleveland Indians and bad news for other teams like the San Diego Padres or Houston Astros. While none of these teams are guaranteed anything, it is clear that, for example, the Phillies pitching rotation is probably going to be as good as most people thought or that the Padres are going to have to struggle to get back into contention. Similar determinations can be made regarding individual players. For example, it is increasingly clear that Derek Jeter’s slow start is due to the great Yankee shortstop finally getting old, or that Jose Bautista has demonstrated that he is an elite power hitter.

The middle of the season can sometimes sneak up on teams and players. By late May or early June narratives based on small sample size or it being too early can no longer be taken seriously, forcing teams to make more rigorous evaluations of their players and chances. We are getting to this point in the season now; and the teams that understand this earlier rather than later will have an advantage.

At this point in the season, teams have significantly more information than they had in late March and can begin to plan accordingly. The Phillies now know that their off-season plan seems to be working and that with some more offensive support their extraordinary starting pitching could, indeed, make them serious contenders for a championship. The defending champion San Francisco Giants, on the other hand, should be able to see that their off-season plan for assuring that their offense will provide enough support to their own great starting pitching was probably wrong. It is unlikely that Miguel Tejada will again be an offensive force, that Aubrey Huff will be an MVP candidate or that everything, more or less, will go right in 2011as it did in 2010.

Alternately, teams can continue to tell themselves that it is still early and turn a blind eye to realities that are beginning to emerge. This would be foolish, but it is tempting. The Yankees would have a lot less to worry about if they could convince themselves that Jeter and Jorge Posada are simply off to slow starts. Contending teams in the AL Central would similarly have an easier time of things if they were able to believe that Cleveland isn’t for real, but these would all be mistakes.

These are difficult choices for teams to make as panicking and being too complacent can lead to equally disappointing results. However, baseball is a game of timing and adjustment both on and off the field and knowing when it is too late to be too early can be the difference between success and failure for a team.