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2011 AL East Race: Over Before It Started?

The Rays fell to 0-5 this afternoon after losing a well-pitched matchup between rookie Jeremy Hellickson, who struck out ten in 5 2/3 innings in his season debut, and the Angels' Dan Haren. Tonight, the Red Sox look to avoid matching that record when Daisuke Matsuzaka takes on Mitch Talbot and the Indians.

An 0-5 start hardly seems like something to get alarmed about given that there are 157 games left to play this season, but as some research I did for shows, it's a significant indicator for a disappointing season. Of the 110 teams to start 0-5 since the inception of major league baseball in 1871, just two have made the postseason (or finished first in their league/division), and one of those two teams, the 1974 Pirates, needed a miraculous mid-season turnaround and a weak NL East to get to October baseball.

What gives?

It's not the length of the streak itself. In 2010 alone, all six division winners had five game losing streaks at some point during the season. The NL Central Champion Reds had two, the eventual American League pennant winning Rangers had an additional six-game losing streak, the eventual world champion Giants had an additional seven-game losing streak, and the NL wild card Braves had a nine-game losing streak. It's not the early deficit in the standings, either. Last year's Giants erased a five-game deficit in the NL West over a 10-day stretch in late August and early September.

Rather, what's significant is the timing. That seems counterintuitive. No five-game losing streak should be easier to compensate for than one made so early in the season. Perhaps it is because teams tend to start their seasons at full strength, thus making an inability to win one of their first five games of the season so revealing. A five-game losing streak mid-season can have an obvious cause. Perhaps a rotation ace is on the disabled list, the lineup is in a slump, or the players are simply beaten up and worn down from the long, hard slog of that 162-game season. At the start of the season, however, arms and legs should be fresh and everyone ought to be present and accounted for.

Note that the Yankees were the only 2010 playoff team that did not have a five-game losing streak. Note also that the Red Sox do not have any key players on the disabled list, though the Rays did lose Evan Longoria to a quadriceps injury in their second game of the season.

Could the AL East race have taken so dramatic a turn less than a week into the season? I wouldn't be shocked to see the Red Sox lose tonight and still go on to make the playoffs, but history strongly suggests that they won't do both.