20 Games In: More Meaningful Than You Might Think

19 games into the season, and the Royals have pulled off a surprising stretch of winning baseball. Fans have found themselves walking a tightrope between excitement and skepticism, with the memory of 2009’s 18-11 start and ensuing collapse still fresh. Personally, I will never complain about wins, and the 2011 Royals have been a blast so far, but my hopes for the remainder of the season remain tempered with a healthy dose of wait-and-see.

The Royals, now at 12-7, will have their first winning record after 20 games since 2003, and only the second since 1989. How much of a team’s true talent level is revealed after 20 games? Looking back at the Royals past, the answer could be “more than I expected.” In a surprising number of years, the team’s winning percentage after 20 games has been fairly similar to their final tally. Only once has a Royals team had a winning record after 20 contests but finished the season with a losing mark (1983). (If you are wondering where that 2009 team is, they just missed the cut by being .500 after 20 games.) And only five teams have dug themselves out of a losing 20 game start to finish above .500 (’84, ’87, ’91, ’93, ’94). That means 86% of Royals teams (36/42) have finished above or below .500 when having a similar winning or losing record after 20 games.

Getting a little more technical, the statistical correlation between the winning percentage after the first 20 games and at the end of the season for Royals teams is .42 (0 meaning no correlation, 1 meaning perfect correlation). So obviously there is still a lot of wiggle room after 20 games. But to a larger degree than I expected, teams that are winners after 20 games tend to be winners at the end of the season, and teams that are losers after 20 games tend to be losers after 162. Let’s hope that holds true this year.

Royals seasons 1969--2010

Best 20 Game Start: 16-4 in 2003; Final record: 83-79

The surprise to me in this exercise has been how few fluky starts the Royals have had, but of course there have been a few. Clearly, this was one, but fluky or not, it did lead to a fun summer of contention and the only winning Royals season in the last two million years.

Worst 20 Game Start: 3-17 in 1992; Final record: 72-90

A flukily bad start, but in the broader sense, correctly reflective of an actually bad team.

Limiting this exercise to Royals history may skew things a little. Because their history is generally drastically split between very good years and very bad years, perhaps it should not be surprising that Royals teams usually are showing their colors after 20 games. Looking at the more varied pool of all 2010 teams, seven squads flipped from above or below .500 after 20 games to the opposite at the end of the season, meaning 77% of teams finished on the same side of the .500 line. In 2009, eight teams flopped between winners/losers after 20 and 162 games (73% stayed the same).

We are moving out of the embryonic stage of the season, with win-loss records compiling to the point where teams will be trying to build on a good start or dig out of a bad one from here on out. Whatever the rest of the year may hold, it is nice for the Royals to be in a position of strength after 20 games for a change.

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