I just spent the last two days discussing with you the point that the Miami Marlins' 2014 season is still young and with many question marks remaining. It is fun and easy to get excited, but it you are of the analytic bent, it is also easy to scoff and toss most of the Marlins' first week out the window with "regression" as the reason. Brad Johnson of FanGraphs mentions that the Marlins' performance is obviously going to fall to regression to the mean, and he's absolutely right.
So it’s April 7th and we have a Marlins juggernaut. To date, they’ve been out-bashing the competition. The rotation should remain reliable, even if it’s not particularly exciting after Fernandez. The entire rest of the team (again, except Yelich) will look worse when we’re looking back on this season. Unfortunately, anyone with a background in intro-level Statistics can see that like winter, regression is coming.
Indeed, anyone with any knowledge of how baseball seasons often go should be able to point out that the Marlins did some unsustainable things last week. But aside from the fact that even one week can improve a team's projection, there is another important point to be made of this first week of the Marlins, particularly if it is followed by a second straight week of good fortune. Jonah Keri of Grantland points it out.
There are two ways to look at the Marlins’ fast start. The first is to continue to buy into the preseason consensus, but count these first five wins. So, if you entered the season thinking the Marlins were going to be a 67-95 team, you should tack a couple more wins onto their season total, but only a couple more wins. You don’t want to adjust too severely, since you still think this is a true-talent 67-win team, but you also can’t ignore these five wins, because assuming that the Marlins’ fast start is bound to result in more losses down the road would be falling victim to the gambler’s fallacy.
This is an important point to make for teams that have either really strong or weak starts in the month of April. It is easy to discount teams that were expected to be bad but started off fast or excuse clubs that started slow after they were expected to compete. No one wants to overreact to April's performance, lest they look silly when teams change course midway through the season. But divisions and playoff spots can be won and lost in April too, because believe it or not, those games count. A loss in April is just as valuable, ultimately, as a loss in the hotbed of the playoff race in September, and vice versa; if your team picks up a few unexpected wins in April and starts hot, it has a nice head start to the regular season once regression rears its ugly head.
This is currently irrelevant to the Miami Marlins. The Fish are currently 5-2 and are not that far ahead of anyone to get excited about starting fast. But the team has six game slated for the week, and Miami could be well ahead of itself if it has another fortuitous week on the diamond against the Washington Nationals and Philadelphia Phillies. Let's say the Marlins stay hot on this young season, extending their BABIP luck on the road for the next two series. If the team goes 4-2 or 5-1 in the next few games, they would end the two-week span at 9-4 or 10-3 to begin the year. That may not seem like much, but that's seven five to seven games better than .500 to start off the season. If the Fish went 10-3 to start and finished the rest of the year with a .460 winning percentage as previously projected by FanGraphs' depth charts, that would leave them as a 78-84 team, which is probably at least an eight-game improvement over preseason projections.
And if you thought that, if the Marlins started hot, they were due for some extra losses down the line, then you fell for the gambler's fallacy, as Jonah Keri points out. The gambler's fallacy is the belief that odds even out over short periods of time, and that a run of good luck will lead to increased bad luck in the future. While the law of large numbers states that, over an infinite span of time, true averages do pan out, it can never be expected to converge in the short-term. Instead, regression to the mean states that, going forward, the Marlins would be expected to perform like their true talent rather than exceed that expectation one way or another to meet that true talent mark.
Remember the Florida Marlins of 2009? That team started the year with an astonishing 11-1 record by the end of the first two weeks of the year. The club posted a 76-74 record the rest of the way, proving themselves to be an average ballclub (they had the run differential of essentially a .500 team), but ended up with 87 wins and fell just five games shy of the Wild Card. Had the second Wild Card been in effect that year, the Marlins would have been a game short of the one-game playoff. The team played about their expected average talent level for 148 out of 162 games and fell just short of the playoffs. And the sole reason for being that close and posting the third-best record in Marlins history was due to the simple 12-game hot streak.
Yes, the current Miami Marlins are not a good team despite their hot start. But since April games count as well, a hot start can propel a franchise to a decent finish because those first few games are already in the books. If Miami comes out strong against the Nationals and Phillies, a 78-win season is completely within reach, even if the team is more or less who we thought they were despite the hot start. And as bad as the Marlins may still be, there is value in the franchise experiencing some winning ways, from clubhouse happiness to Giancarlo Stanton's decision whether or not to remain on this team. It could all happen because of a few small breaks in some meaningless April games, but it could have a big impact on a number of future Marlins decisions. April still counts, guys.