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Is It Time to Panic in Boston?

With today’s 1-0 loss to the Indians, the Boston Red Sox are now 0-6. This is the same Red Sox team that many people, myself included, tabbed as the favorites to win the World Series. So far, they haven’t hit (only Minnesota has been worse offensively after today’s shutout) and they really haven’t pitched (entering the day with a ridiculous 8.25 FIP), and the total team meltdown has led to a miserable start to the season and a 4 1/2 game deficit behind the East-leading Orioles.

Those last three words should be all you need to know about whether the current standings are predictive of where we’ll be at year’s end, but that hasn’t stopped a number of people from pointing out that no team that has ever begun the season 0-6 has gone on to play in the World Series, and only two out of the 85 teams to ever start 0-5 (or worse) had even made the playoffs. Those sound like seriously scary numbers until you realize that there’s a huge sampling bias problem – most teams that start a season with a long losing streak kind of suck. By virtue of filtering only teams that have lost a bunch of games to start the season, we’re left looking at the records of teams who inherently lacked talent in most cases, and holding those teams up as examples of how the 2011 Red Sox (who don’t suck, despite their poor start) will play going forward doesn’t work.

So, no, Boston fans should not be scared by the lack of historical comparisons for slow starting teams turning it around – there simply aren’t very many examples of teams this good starting this poorly. And, just because they lost their first six games does not mean we should throw out our evaluations of the talent on their roster that we believed to be true a week ago. In fact, six games shouldn’t be enough to change any evaluation of ability in a significant way, so whatever you thought about the Red Sox’ abilities last week, you should still think something very close to that today.

However, that doesn’t mean circumstances haven’t changed. By losing their first six games, the Red Sox have dug themselves into a pretty decent-sized hole, and while our evaluation of the talent on their roster might be the same, our expectation of the final results of their season has been altered.

In the Fan Standings based on our reader’s projections of individual player performance, you guys had the Red Sox winning 98 games this year, or 60.5 percent of all the games they played. If we apply that exact same projected winning percentage to 156 games – the remainder of the Red Sox’ schedule – we come up with 94.4 wins. Even with the belief that the Red Sox’ slump doesn’t change our opinion of their true-talent level at all, we have to adjust our expectation of their final record down from 98 wins to 95 wins (all six losses having been on the road so far, we’ll round up to account for the schedule slightly favoring Boston going forward).

Losing three wins off of your projected record is a big deal – the change is essentially equivalent to the adjustment we would have had to make had J.D. Drew blown out his knee on Opening Day and was lost for the remainder of the season. All of the sudden, the fairly significant projected gap between Boston and New York (who projected as a 94-win team and are on pace for that mark) has all but disappeared. Even if we agree that the Red Sox are still the better team than New York right now, Boston’s slow start has made the race in the AL East a virtual coin flip.

It’s just six games, but these results count in the standings, too. While we shouldn’t get carried away with the doom and gloom, the reality is that the Sox have indeed frittered away a large percentage of their chances of winning the division this year. I’d still bet on them to make the playoffs, but their chances are now quite a bit lower than they were a week ago.