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O’Neil: Believe them or not, Mariners have had exceedingly rare start

The Mariners have shown plenty of offensive firepower during their 13-2 start. (Getty)

“Hot” is an insufficient descriptor of the Seattle Mariners’ start to this season.

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“Torrid” doesn’t quite capture it, either. They’ve been at it for more than two weeks, and while “historic” might be overstating things just a bit, it’s getting closer to an accurate depiction of just what is transpiring with our baseball team.

It is exceedingly rare for any major-league team to start 13-2 or better let alone for a team like the Mariners – expected to be average at best – to perform that feat.

So in an the hopes of providing some context, let’s put some numbers to this start to answer the relatively straightforward question of what this all adds up to.

Q: When was the last team to start 13-2?

Answer: Last year. The Boston Red Sox were 13-2 on their way to a winning 17 of their first 19. They finished with 108 victories and won the World Series.

Q: So it happens pretty much every year that a team starts like this?

Answer: No. It happens like every five years. The last team to start 13-2 before Boston was the 2013 Atlanta Braves. Before that the 2003 San Francisco Giants.

In the 25 years since the wild-card era began in 1994, the Mariners are the fifth team to start 13-2. If you go back even further to 1969, when the leagues were split into divisions, the Mariners are the ninth team to do so.

Q: OK, so it’s pretty unusual. How do teams that start this hot usually end up?

Answer: They usually end up being very good, if not outright great. Of the previous eight teams to start 13-2, three won 100 games or more and two won the World Series. If you want specifics on the playoffs, seven of the eight would have qualified for the postseason.

The Mariners are the ninth team in the past 50 years to win 13 or more of their first 15 games. Here’s how the previous eight teams to do that fared:
Year Team Started Final record Projection Postseason
2018 Boston 13-2 108-54   Won World Series
2013 Atlanta 13-2 96-66   Lost to Dodgers,
NL Divisional series, 3-1
2003 San Francisco 13-2 100-61   Lost to Marlins
NL Divisional series, 3-1
1994 Atlanta 13-2 68-46* 96.6 Playoffs cancelled
1987 Milwaukee 14-1 91-71   Did not qualify
1984 Detroit 14-1 104-58   Won World Series
1982 Atlanta 13-2 89-73   Lost to Cardinals
NLCS, 3-0
1981 Oakland A’s 14-1 64-45* 95 Lost to Yankees
ALCS, 3-0
*Regular season shortened by a work stoppage.

Q: What do you mean “would have”?

Answer: Well, the list includes the 1994 Atlanta Braves, who started 13-2 in a season that never actually finished because of the players strike. Atlanta was 68-46 when the season ended, on pace for 97 wins and in position to make the playoffs. The Oakland A’s started 14-1 in 1981, another year interrupted by a work stoppage, though the playoffs were held that year and the A’s were part of it.

The only team to win at least 13 of its first 15 games in the past 50 years that didn’t make the playoffs (if there were, in fact, playoffs to be played that year) was the 1987 Brewers. They were an exceptionally weird team. They won their first 13 games that year, matching the major-league record for victories to start a season. They later lost 12 in a row and 18 of 20. The great Paul Molitor hit safely in 39 consecutive games that season while the not-even-good Juan Nieves threw a no-hitter. The Brewers won 91 games that season, third-best in the American League East and didn’t qualify for the playoffs.

Q: So you’re saying the Mariners are going to be good?

Answer: Probably. The eight teams that won 13 or more of their first 15 games over the past 50 years finished with a combined winning percentage of .603, which translates to 95 wins over a 162-game season. If you factor out work-stoppages, no team in the past 50 years has started 13-2 and finished with fewer than 89 wins.

Q: Sounds like they’re assured of being good.

Answer: Well, let’s not go that far. This is the Mariners we’re talking about. Not only that, but last year, the New York Mets started out almost as hot. They won 12 of their first 14, but that 12-2 start was a total mirage. They went 65-83 the rest of the way and finished with 77 wins.

The Angels started out maybe even hotter. They were 13-3, and while they didn’t entirely collapse, they didn’t manage a winning record, either, finishing 80-82.

In the case of both the Mets and the Angels last year, the bottom gave way very quickly. The Mets were 17-9 when April ended and went 10-18 in the month of May. The Angels’ decline is even more precipitous. After winning 13 of their first 16, they lost nine of their final 12 games in April and went 14-15 in the month of May.

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