Strange days are a beauty of the small sample size

Barry Zito a dominant win? Barry Zito a complete-game shutout? (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

If you’ve been paying attention the last week or so, you may have noticed some strange things going on in Major League Baseball. The Orioles, Rays, and Mets started the season 3-0, and  the Yankees and Red Sox started the season 0-3 — the first time since 1966. Today, Barry Zito pitched his first complete game shutout in nine years. Up is down, right is left, rivers are flowing backwards and people are speaking in tongues. And every year, come the second week of April, we seem to forget that this stuff happens every year like clockwork.

Last season, the Orioles started the season 6-1. Through 14 games, the Royals were 10-4. Things we can explain happen every April, and every year, we all run around with our heads cut off.  So, why does this happen?  If the Orioles went 6-1 over a seven-game period, in say, August, no one would bat an eyelash. Seven games doesn’t seem like much when you have five months of season to base it on. But when those seven games happen in the first week of the season, it’s all we have from which to judge a team. In short, April makes us all slaves to the god of the small sample size.

If you’re an Angels fan worried about Albert Pujols not setting the world on fire in the first week, or a Giants fan wondering what heathen god Zito made a human sacrifice to, it’s time to take a deep breath and calm down. In reality, the first month of the season means very little, if anything at all. Last year, the Mariners were in contention all the way into June before they dropped 17 games in a row. The boys over Fangraphs last season declared the Rockies the NL West division champs after all of one month. Baseball’s unique in that there are more games in a season than in any other major U.S. sport. If a team in the NFL loses its first four games, that team is probably doomed for the cellar. If the last month of the 2011 season has taught us anything, it’s that panicking over small sample sizes in April is a fool’s errand.

So, how should you, the passionate fan that you are, react to your team’s struggles or successes so far? To that, I would tell you to do whatever you want as long as you can consciously admit to yourself that everything you’re seeing right now is a lie. It’s a tough realization to come to, but once we can all resist the siren call of the small sample size, we can begin the healing process. Ah, but the beginning of the season is also that wonderful time where Chone Figgins looks like a functional major leaguer and Barry Zito shuts out the Rockies at Coors Field. Weird things happen when you take a few games and extrapolate them over the course of a 162-game season.

This is also half the fun of the beginning of the season. We’re all still high off of our first exposure to baseball in six months and are prone to making vast generalizations. When your team starts off 0-3, you can remind yourself that there’s plenty of baseball left to play, while you rock back and forth in the corner hugging your knees. The simple fact is the first week of the season is both exhilarating and horrifying in too many ways. So, sit back and ride out the storm until September, when things are totally less stressful; Braves, Red Sox, Cardinals and Rays fans can attest to that.

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