The Major League Baseball regular season is not even a week old and already people are wondering if it's time to start panicking.
The short answer is no. And yes. Whether or not you should panic might just depend on the city.
Teams have played between three and five times so far this season, no more than three percent of the long, arduous MLB marathon of 162 games. Although there are just two that remain winless heading into play on Tuesday, April 10th, the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins, a host of teams that expect to compete for playoff spots currently find themselves as many as three or four games out of first place.
Yes, yes. It's early. This is certainly not a time to panic for a team like the Braves, who see the Phillies as the benchmark in the NL East. The Phillies are in just as bad shape as the Braves, currently sitting in second-to-last place with only one win. Nobody thinks the 4-0 Mets will be contenders this year, even though they are undefeated in the division and begin the year atop the NL East standings.
Braves and Phillies fans shouldn't panic just yet, but if either fanbase is panicking, it should be about the gaping holes in their respective rosters, not the fact that the Mets are leading the division.
On the other hand, maybe the San Francisco Giants could start to panic just a little. Not only are the Giants 1-3 on the season, their only win came yesterday on an absolute gem thrown by Barry Zito against the Rockies. How many times do we expect to say that this year?
Tim Lincecum was terrible in his 2012 debut, and the Giants were swept by division rival Arizona to start the season. Getting swept by a team in the division, whether it comes in the first weekend, last weekend or any time in between, should be cause for some concern.
Just ask the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers lost the first three games of the season to the Rays in a series that included pitching problems in both the rotation and the who-would-have-seen-this-coming bullpen. Like the Braves and Phillies, at least the Yankees are keeping pace with the Red Sox, who also dropped their first three games before finally getting a win in game four.
Boston. That's where the real panic should start to set in.
Boston missed the playoffs by one game in 2011, and while most people would point to the collapse at the end of the season that fractured the clubhouse, demoralized the fanbase and eventually cost former manager Terry Francona his job, it was the start of the season that contributed just as much to their failure at the end.
The Red Sox started 2011 1-8 and didn't get to .500 until the middle of May. Yes, the season is a marathon and teams can overcome a little sputtering at the start of a 162-game journey, but the first counts just as much in the standings as the last game. For games in the division, the results mean even more.
Since 2000, 38 different playoff races have been decided by three or fewer games. With 96 teams making the MLB playoffs since the turn of the century–eight teams each season for 12 seasons–nearly 40 percent have been up for grabs heading into the final weekend of the year.
Say what you want about teams needing to navigate the arduous 162-game schedule and not worrying about losing a few games to start the year, there is little denying the fact that playoff berths still come down to as little as one series, or even one game.
Eighteen of the aforementioned 38 close races—nearly half of all races—have come down to one game or less to determine the winner of a division or wild-card participant. In the National League alone, the wild-card participant has been decided by one game in six of the last eight seasons.
Over the last dozen seasons, the NL Wild Card has been decided by an average of 3.17 games. The NL West has been the closest division, decided by an average of just 4.46 games, followed by the AL Wild Card (5.96), AL Central (6.29), NL Central (6.46), AL East (6.63), NL East (7.08) and AL West (7.45).
Not every division comes down to the wire every season. Even the ultra-competitive AL East which has not had a back-to-back champion since 2006, is usually decided by an average or more than two full regular-season series.
Still, of the eight different playoff races each season, at least two have been decided by a game or less in five of the last six years.
Yes, the added wild-card teams in 2012 should take the pressure off some of those teams, but the fact remains that every game matters in baseball.
No, statistically speaking it shouldn't be time for teams to panic yet. Even the best teams in baseball history lose nearly 60 percent of the games they play, so losing a few games at the start of the season really shouldn't be that much a cause for concern.
Unless, of course, your team plays in an ultra-competitive division where every game matters and the division will be decided by three games or less. Or your team can't score any runs. Or your pitching staff seems entirely too easy to hit. Or your players (or fans) already hate your new manager.
So no, don't panic yet. Or do. It's a long season either way.