Matthew Taylor: A non-scientific analysis of hanging around

I recently read an interesting Wall Street Journal article by Matthew Futterman that, like many statistical analyses these days, challenged conventional baseball wisdom. In this instance, the cherished-but-challenged wisdom is as follows: “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Futterman writes that baseball is in fact very much a sprint and that the beloved boys of summer generally know how they’ll finish the season even before the summer solstice.

Here’s a key passage from the piece:

“Since 1996, just 9% of teams with a losing record on June 1 wound up with 90 wins, the number teams usually shoot for to make the playoffs, according to data crunched by The Wall Street Journal and Ben Alamar, founder of the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports. During that early season period, the average correlation between a team’s win percentage on June 1 and its final winning percentage is 0.76. Statisticians consider that to be a very high correlation.”

The 1996 Orioles made the playoffs with 88 wins. They were 28-23 by the close of business June 1 of that season. The following year the wire-to-wire Birds raced out to 36-15 record through June 1 and finished the season with 98 wins. And we haven’t had to worry about the playoffs in Baltimore ever since.

Though the Wall Street Journal analysis wasn’t necessarily intended to speak to the fates of known non-contenders it nevertheless piqued my curiosity about the O’s early fortunes during the current streak of losing seasons. Any Birds fan can tell you about the late-summer swoon (Just don’t call it the August swoon - that’s a myth). But in hindsight, what have we reasonably known about the season’s outcome by June 1?

Here’s what my non-scientific analysis found:

* Since 1998, the Orioles have been at or above .500 at the end of the day June 1 just three times. The team was 32-20 in 2005, 24-24 in 2004, and 28-27 in 2003. Every other season, the Birds had a losing record and things didn’t change by season’s end. So if you’re discouraged about the O’s recent struggles, recent history suggests there’s reason to be.

* The most games the Orioles have lost in a season since 1998 is 98. It’s happened twice - in 2001 and 2009. The team’s record after June 1 was 24-28 in 2001 and 25-28 in 2009. So just because you’re hanging around .500 in June doesn’t mean you’ll be anywhere close by September. I’m guessing the Orioles’ dramatic dropoff in winning percentage over the years damaged the otherwise strong correlation the Wall Street Journal discovered. The O’s were 25-29 after beating Seattle 2-1 on June 1 this season. Again, that’s not a good sign if you’re hoping for a .500 season.

* The closest the Orioles have come to a .500 record since 1998 is 79-83 in 1998. They were 26-30 on June 1. Meanwhile, the team finished with a 78-84 record in 1999 and 2004. Their June 1 records in those seasons were 20-31 were 24-24, respectively. So the Birds have had seasons where they hang around .500 long enough to keep fans hanging around throughout the season.

(Quick aside: Am I the only one with the Counting Crows song “Hanging Around” stuck in my head after having used that phrase so many times in this post? If so, just wait until you read my Adam Jones-themed post titled “Mr. Jones and Me.”)

So what can we conclude from these facts, besides the obvious that I’m too busy (or lazy) to do a more scientific analysis for today’s guest post? My personal conclusion is this: It’s not the Orioles who have been guilty of getting my hopes up all these years; rather, it’s squarely on me. I’ve believed, against abundant evidence to the contrary, that a winning season was not only possible but at times probable. And why stop now?

I’m choosing to believe in what I’ll call the Reverse Showalter Effect, which takes hold well after June 1. Traditionally, the Birds’ problems have emerged most clearly and definitively in the summer’s hottest months when factors like injuries, trades and just a general regression to the mean expose a potential winner as a continued loser. Last year was an exception to that rule, as the Orioles started miserably but used a 34-24 record from August through October to once again reignite my hope/naïve optimism. It was the first instance of the Reverse Showalter Effect, and we’ll need it to take hold again in 2011.

So don’t give up on a winning season just yet. Statistics be damned ... sort of.

Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. His ruminations about the Birds will appear this week as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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