An Illustration of Small Sample Size

I apologize for bringing up the 2016 season again, but it must be done. As some of you may recall, the 2016 White Sox started the year 23-10 before ultimately finishing below .500 in such humiliating fashion that it forced the organization to abandon a philosophy it had clung to for over a decade.

Since then, I’ve been asked how the team managed to get off to that good start if the roster really was that flawed. Injuries to spare parts like Austin Jackson only go so far, even if his understudy would wind up being well below replacement level. Similarly, vague explanations like, “Well, it was a small sample” or “Luck” or “Variance” is deeply unsatisfying and abstract.  Oddly, while Hawk Harrelson lamented the White Sox’ tough schedule as the season veered listlessly into a ditch, he had in fact accidentally stumbled upon a big reason why we thought the White Sox might actually be good.

Of those first 33 games, the White Sox played six against Minnesota, four against Oakland, and four against the Angels.  Those three teams would finish the season winning 59 (!!), 69, and 74 games respectively, and the White Sox unsurprisingly went 11-3 against them.  They even got three games against the Rays, who finished last in the AL East, for good measure, although they would only go 1-2 in that set.  In other words, the White Sox played more than half of their first 33 games against the absolute worst teams in the American League by a mile, and the only four teams who would finish lower than they did by the end of the season.

And sure, good teams beat up on cellar dwellers while treading water against stronger competition, but the White Sox drew about as weak of an opening schedule as you possibly could.  Eventually the problems that always plagued the White Sox of the post-2008 era–the back half of the roster being sub-replacement dreck with Worst In MLB production coming from multiple spots in the order–sank the White Sox as they moved through the rest of an otherwise very competitive American League.

I was inspired to re-visit this issue as the Minnesota Twins still sit in first place in the AL Central at 27-23, even after losing three straight to Houston by a combined score of 40-16.  And while they’ve had positive developments–Ervin Santana is still pitching out of his mind, Miguel Sano is a superb bat, etc.–a lopsided early schedule explains a lot of their good start.  The Twins are 7-1 against the Kansas City Royals, a team that rose to prominence by grabbing minor advantages all over the diamond, who have now lost a slight step, meaning they are looking like a 90-loss team again.  Throw in some good luck in one run games in the early going, Cleveland gearing up slowly, and voila, First Place Twins.

This trend may even continue! They’re currently matched up with the Angels right when they lost Mike Trout, and then they go on to play seven games against the Mariners whose entire team is on the DL, with a three game set against the Giants sans-Madison Bumgarner for good measure.

People throw around, “It’s early” all the time in baseball, and it can be very tempting to start trying to draw conclusions at this stage of the season.  After all, we’re at 50 games played for most teams and it’s June now.  But projection systems and the general public generally agreed the Twins weren’t a great team coming into the season, and the same reasons one would make that prediction still exist.  Their pitchers are by and large bad and there isn’t much help on the way from the minors.  If Santana’s ERA drifts up toward 3.00, which would represent a career best mark at age-34, does that erase their margin for winning more than half their games? What happens when the schedule gets harder?

At the risk of having this article shoved in my face forever when the Twins wind up winning 90 games for no reason, I recommend against betting on the Twins to win the division.

Lead Photo Credit: John E. Sokolowski – USA Today Sports Images

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