The Pittsburgh Pirates are a popular pick to return to the playoffs for a third consecutive season, maybe even win the World Series. The Chicago White Sox, after a busy offseason, are a popular pick to contend for the postseason after going 73-89 in 2014.
But both teams are 0-3. The Cincinnati Reds swept the Pirates with a 3-2 win on Thursday, the walk-off run scoring on an error by Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco. The Pirates went 4-for-24 with runners in scoring position in the series. The Kansas City Royals picked up where they left off last October, winning 4-1 on Thursday as Edinson Volquez allowed just four hits in eight innings and Lorenzo Cain flashed the leather in center field with two outstanding catches.
So, can we read anything into the 0-3 starts for the Pirates and White Sox (not to mention the Minnesota Twins, Milwaukee Brewers and Miami Marlins)? What about the 3-0 starts for the Reds, Royals, Detroit Tigers, Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies?
Before we dig into the numbers, there's an obvious answer if you think about: If you look at any three-game stretch from any point in the season, good teams are more likely to win three in a row than bad teams. So it reasons that the same logic applies to the first three games of the season.
I checked all 0-3 and 3-0 teams over the previous 10 seasons. Twenty-seven teams started 0-3 and they had a final win-loss average of 78-84. Twenty-nine teams started 3-0 and they averaged 84-78. So if you knew nothing about the teams above other than the records from the first three games, you would project the teams that started 3-0 to fare better by the end of the season.
That doesn't mean it's time for the 0-3 teams to panic. It is, after all, just three games, and playoff teams will often have three-game losing streaks during a season. Last year's Los Angeles Angels started 0-3 and won 98 games, most in the majors. The 2012 San Francisco Giants lost their first three games and went on to win the World Series. All told, seven of the 27 teams that started 0-3 made the playoffs; 10 of the 29 teams that started 3-0 made the playoffs.
The good news for the Reds, Royals, Tigers, Rockies and Braves is that the trend in recent years has been more favorable for teams that do start out 3-0. Since 2010, 15 teams were 3-0; only three finished with losing records and only one in the past three seasons.
The most impressive sweep probably belonged to the Royals, who played exactly like the team that got hot last October. While they missed Chris Sale as he rehabs from a foot injury, they did score 21 runs in three games, putting the ball in play and even hitting a few home runs. Volquez was a much-criticized free-agent signing but had good results in his first start. Yes, he benefited from good defense last year with the Pirates, but he's going to get defense in Kansas City. There's a reason mediocre starters like Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas had solid seasons a year ago. That defense improves everybody on the staff. Throw in that dominant bullpen and the Royals aren't going to blow many late-game leads.
Maybe the most important sweep was Cincinnati's. Until the Reds play the Braves in the final game of the month, their April schedule is entirely in the NL Central, including six of their next nine against the St. Louis Cardinals. A good first month will help erase some of the initial doubts about their starting rotation. They recovered from the Kevin Gregg blunder to win on Opening Day and Billy Hamilton is already 6-for-6 on steals, a great sign that his legs are healthier than last year, when he still swiped 56 bases but was caught 23 times. I also like Bryan Price's batting order, moving OBP machine Joey Votto to second in the lineup and moving Brandon Phillips -- who doesn't get on base enough to warrant a high spot in the lineup -- down to sixth. On paper, the Reds are thin in the rotation -- retread Jason Marquis starts Friday -- and thin in the bullpen, but the offense will be better if it remains healthy.
The Tigers crushed the Twins in their three-game series, outscoring them 22-1 while hitting .343 and drawing 15 walks and striking out just 11 times. It says something about the Tigers, of course, but I wonder if it says more about the Twins. Kyle Gibson gave up eight hits and six runs in 3.1 innings in Thursday's 7-1 loss -- and walked five with no strikeouts. Just a terrible outing; only three starters had such a game last season (Trevor May, Jeff Locke and Nick Martinez). If I'm a Twins fans, maybe I do start worrying already (not that expectations were high). And if you're a Tigers fan, you had to love the first outing from Shane Greene, one of my sleeper breakout candidates for 2015. He went eight innings and allowed just an unearned run, throwing an efficient 85 pitches.
So, yes, it's early and there's need to overreact; but I'd much rather my team be 3-0 than 0-3.