Why early wins are so important

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A win is a win is a win, whether it's in April, July, or September. But strategically, April wins may be most important for surprise contenders like the Brewers.

Back when the Brewers started off 5-2, I talked in this space about how that information needs to be factored in to update expectations. The point of that post was that you can't assume wins will somehow "balance out", using the analogy that you don't start expecting a coin to land on heads 40% of the time after you flip heads 6 times out of 10. There's also been talk about correcting the fallacy that games in April somehow mean less than games in September. That's obviously not true.

But I would like to propose some sort of corollary to the baseball fan doctrines "gambler's fallacy" and "all games are important". My concept is that if you're going to have a super-hot month, it's actually far more beneficial to have that stretch earlier in the season than later.

Baseball owners and general managers have to make a decision near the trade deadline, which tend to fall into 3 categories: going for it, standing pat, or selling. They operate as though they don't know what the true talent of their team is, until that information is gradually revealed game by game. By July they balance their pre-season expectation with the actual team's record and make a decision about whether they should go for it or not.

The 2012 Brewers are an excellent example of this point. That team led the National League in runs and had a reasonable rotation, but the bullpen was historically bad, and they struggled out of the gate. The Brewers were 11-12 through April, 23-28 through May, and 35-42 through June. Even though the team had high expectations prior to the year, after a poor start in July, Doug Melvin moved the Brewers into the "seller" category and traded Zack Greinke to the Angels. The Brewers then went on a tear in August and September, moving within a couple of wins of a playoff spot and finishing the year 83-79.

How might that season have played out differently if the Brewers month-by-month record had been inverted? It's a silly hypothetical for a number of reasons, but let's say that they began their season 47-39 into mid-July (which was actually their post-July record that year). What changes?

First of all, it's likely the Greinke trade does not happen, or if it does, Melvin insists in a more major-league ready haul than the one he ended up getting. Secondly, he likely makes at least one aggressive move to improve the pitching staff, as he has shown a tendency to do whenever the Brewers are within striking distance of a playoff spot (the Scott Linebrink and K-Rod trades come to mind, not to mention CC Sabathia). Maybe the Brewers make the playoffs that year, maybe they don't-- but the point is that the team gets better by keeping Greinke and adding someone else, rather than maintaining or getting worse.

That gets at my central point-- up to now we have been talking about assuming that the Brewers are roughly a .500 team that has played above their ability so far. Based on that logic, we could reasonably project a wins total in the high 80s and a fairly good chance at a playoff spot. But with every win in April and May, two things happen:

- We become more confident that this team is actually better than a .500-caliber squad

- We increase the odds that they move into the "buyer" (or at the very least, "stand-pat") category

Baseball's dynamics are such that the best teams generally get better and the worst teams get worse after the trade deadline. And it's not always true that improving the team requires mortgaging important future talent-- acquiring guys like Rodriguez and Ray Durham in 2008 made tangible differences to the Brewers teams they were added to, but cost little in terms of prospects. Getting hot in April, rather than September, means there's a better chance your GM makes a move to actually make your team better at some point during the year-- and so contrary to the usual logic that early season games are not all that important, for a fringe contender April wins may be more important than September wins after all.

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