A wise punk rocker once said that anxiety is the foundation of society. Sadly, no one seems to recall the second part of that lyric: "suppress it if you can"; whenever a team that is supposed to be good struggles to start the year, fans and analysts alike act as if the world is minutes away from ending.
The Red Sox lived through that early this spring, starting the season with a 2-10 record before playing as expected. Boston had a lot of pressure to perform -- a local paper even went so far as to declare them the best Red Sox team ever before they played a game that counted -- so when things didn't start out all rainbows and puppy dogs, the panic levels hit an all-time high.
There were countless tweets and articles written exclaiming some form of, "no team that has ever started out 0-X has ever made the playoffs", or "won the World Series", or "brought democracy to Cuba." It's a shame that the season had to end two weeks in*, because the Red Sox have made quite the comeback, and now have the top record in the American League in spite of that start, thanks to an 111-win pace since.
*Now they'll never have a shot at taking the World Series trophy from the 2011 Indians!
All of that pessimism after two weeks was due to history. While history is often a great indicator of what is going to happen in the future, sometimes (when you aren't considering invading Russia in the winter, anyways) it can lead you astray. For instance, the average win total for teams that have started 2-10 or worse to begin the year since 1956 is 67. This leads one to believe that maybe any team that starts out 2-10 (or worse) is screwed.
Until you think about it for more than a few seconds. Those 12 games represent just over seven percent of the schedule, meaning Boston still had plenty of time to both catch up and get ahead. They wouldn't be the first team to come back from such an inauspicious beginning, either -- tucked away in that low average win total are a few clubs that should have given the Red Sox fans hope.
The 2001 Oakland Athletics started out with the same 2-10 record Boston did this year. Since this was pre-Moneyball, and many of us were still part of the unwashed masses, expectations may not have been that high for the team in the spring, but the attention they paid to hitters that could take a walk paid off, as Oakland had the third-highest OBP in the American League to go along with the league's top pitching staff, anchored by healthy and working versions of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Cory Lidle.
If you want to get technical, you could say the poor start cost them the division -- this is the same year the Seattle Mariners won 116 games, and half of those first losses came at the hands of the M's. Those lowly disappointments in Oakland managed to win just 102 games that year, forcing them to settle for the Wild Card.
The only other team to win 90 games or more was in 1982, when the Baltimore Orioles finished with a 94-69 record that put them second in the AL East -- one game behind the division winning Brewers. Unlike Oakland (and Boston), the O's couldn't rely on the Wild Card to help them make up for their start, but it's tough to complain about their performance overall -- they played at nearly a 100-win clip the rest of the way, and won the World Series in 1983 with a very similar looking roster.
That team was expected to do well; the '81 squad finished second in the AL East, and this version was set to have a lot more Cal Ripken Jr. in it -- Ripken had torn up Double- and Triple-A in the two years prior, and was expected to be a big-time major leaguer. Eddie Murray was the first baseman, and the rotation had Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan, and an aging but effective Jim Palmer. And, of course, the legendary Earl Weaver running the ship.
There are others that made noise, though none reached the heights of those two squads. The 1974 Pirates won 88 games, and the 1984 Orioles squad also started out 2-10 before finishing with 85 victories.
Now, let's think about the rosters of the 2001 A's and the 1982 Orioles, and really, any of the 43 teams who have started 2-10 or worse to start a season. The A's may be the only one that comes close to the talent that Boston has assembled for the 2011 season -- it's no wonder the track record of teams starting out 2-10 is so poor, as most of the teams are just as bad as their starts indicated.
There were too many people who forgot to have faith in their own idea of how good Boston was, just a few weeks before the early-season massacre. They were swept up in the moment, and by what history told them, too, when all they should have done is sat back, and looked at a roster that, after winning 89 games despite more significant injuries than anyone in 2010, added two of the very best players in the game.
Boston won't necessarily keep up their 111-win pace the rest of the year. They don't have to, though, as their current record -- with the warts from 2-10 and all -- has them on pace for 96 wins this year. Unlike the Orioles (but like the A's) they can likely settle for the Wild Card if another AL East club ends up closer to 100 wins.
It's been said before, but if this stretch happened this month, when there were already plenty of games on the schedule, no one would pay it any mind. Ask around: More people will be able to tell you how bad the Sox started than will be able to tell you how poorly Cleveland has played as of late -- and the latter has been much, much worse. Don't let the narrative overrule common sense.