Strong starts don’t tell final story

May 17, 2005 6:31 AM

More than any other sport, baseball is a game of patience. There’s an old saying, "It ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish."

This is true of horseracing, of course, as we just witnessed with Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby. And, it’s particularly true in baseball. Consistent winning over the long haul, combined with getting hot at the end of the season, are two of the most important ingredients to winning the World Series.

It’s difficult to even think about the World Series this time of year, as we’re still in the first third of the season. Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, has written that a GM spends the first third of the season evaluating what he has, the middle third filling in the pieces he needs, and the final third watching his team put it together and play its best ball — if everything goes right. If that’s the case, then most teams are simply evaluating their pieces now.

A year ago early in the season, the division leaders were the Tigers, Devil Rays, A’s in the AL and the Reds, Marlins, Giants in the NL. That was surprising because the previous season, the Reds lost 93 games, the Devil Rays 99 and the Tigers 119! However, while they got off to surprising starts in 2004, none of those six teams made the playoffs and half finished with losing records. The Reds started 34-22 and were 47-41 at the All Star break before slumping to a season-ending 76-86. The defending champion Marlins began 30-20, only to finish a shade over .500 (83-79) and failing to make the postseason.

While many teams will have a different look from season to season, the long schedule showcases how surprises can emerge and offer smart bettors terrific value for their wagering dollar. Those old laughable Montreal Expos are no more, replaced by the Washington Nationals. As is often the case in our nation’s capital, they upgraded the payroll. Notice that the Nationals started 13-11 as a dog with a +20 percent return on investment.

The White Sox improved their speed, defense and pitching, which has them a sizzling +35 percent ROI (return on investment) and 20-11 "under" the total. Baltimore’s improved offense explains a 9-1 start as an underdog with a strong +23 ROI. On the other side of the coin, the Houston Astros have big name pitchers Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, yet cut payroll severely on offense. Thus, the ’Stros are —29 percent ROI, and just 7-8 as a favorite while starting 2-16 on the road. Simply put, these clubs are not the same as a year ago — on the field or at the betting window.

It isn’t always the first racehorse out of the gate that crosses the finish line. It’s a long summer, and over the course of 162 games, the cream will rise to the top. Two years ago, the Devil Rays topped Pedro Martinez in Lou Piniella’s first game on the way to 99 losses. The 2003 Pirates started 7-3, but couldn’t keep up that .700 winning percentage en route to a 75-87 mark.

This is why depth in baseball, especially pitching, is so important. Pitchers are fragile and more likely to get hurt, and with pitching such a rare commodity, one or two injuries or trades can change the fortunes of a team (Cubs, A’s). Injuries to aging starting pitchers are major concerns for the Yankees and defending champion Red Sox.

Sustaining a surprise start requires improved talent, depth, lineup balance and good health. A crop of talented young players from the farm system can be a huge plus. The Florida Marlins rode a slew of hot young arms — Dontrelle Willis, Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano — to the World Series title. Two years ago the Royals started 17-4 and the Mariners started 40-18, yet both failed to make the postseason.

A team’s health is something that can’t be controlled, but needs to be followed. Serious sports bettors should keep up on injuries daily. In addition, center field and shortstop are key defensive positions. Teams and certain pitchers can be at a disadvantage if they lose a great defensive shortstop, for example. Bettors need to track injuries and understand what the relationship to the team might be when attempting to project a winner or locating wagering value.

There was never a better example of the lack of importance of a hot start than two years ago when the 2003 Marlins began 19-29 and ended up as World Series champions. That gives hope to those teams that are off to struggling starts, and should provide caution to teams that are in first place. After all, it’s only May!