April records are the Ouija boards of baseball. They get you excited, but their predictions are bunk. Breathe a sigh of relief, third-place-Yankees fans and last-place-Mets fans. Since 1983, only half of the teams in first place on May 1 have finished the season in first place. Likewise, only half of the teams in last place have finished there. 50-50 odds are the equivalent of random chance: If your team is in first or last place at the end of April, it's a coin flip as to whether they'll stay there.
The best team in recent memory, the 1998 Yankees (114 wins), compiled an impressive April record, but they hadn't pulled away by May 1. The Red Sox stalked them from just a half-game back. Who knew Boston would fade fast and finish 22 games out? In 1993, the NL West witnessed one of the great modern pennant races, as the Braves (104 wins) and the Giants (103) went down to the wire. But on May 1, the contest was nowhere in evidence. Atlanta sat in third, a few games below .500, and San Francisco was in second, behind a 13-9 Houston team that finished a distant third. Last year, the Giants were in last place, five games out, on May 1, but they closed the season 10 games ahead of the Dodgers.
The awesome 1984 Tigers had a portentous April. They posted an 18-2 record and went on to win 104 games and the World Series. But the 1989 Rangers started out almost as impressively, at 17-5, and finished fourth, at 83-79. The 1987 Brewers opened the season 18-3 but went .500 the rest of the way to finish 91-71, good for third place.
Why isn't April a more useful predictor of the rest of the baseball season? After all, you know how a sandwich tastes after you eat a sixth of it. You usually know if a book is good after you read a sixth of it. Why can't you know who's going to win the World Series after the season is one-sixth over?
TheAny Given DayTheory: In most sports, on any given day any given team can beat any other given team. But in baseball, with its interminable season, the cliché might as well say that in any given month any crappy team can win some games and any good team can lose a few. The difference between 15-10 and 10-15 could be blind luck, an injury, a slump, a streak, bad weather, or a zillion other anomalies that get ironed out over the very long course of a very long season.
TheExtended Spring Training Theory: The main reason fans aren't supposed to get nervous when their team underperforms in spring training is that reserves and rookies, not starters, get the bulk of the playing time. But there is a second reason: Many players aren't physically ready by March. And even by April they may still have a few kinks to work out. This is especially true of the veterans who play for winning teams and don't generally toil away in winter ball like the hungry first-place Phillies and Twins youngsters.
TheFlaky Baseball Player Theory: Baseball players are superstitious. They believe in jinxes. Turk Wendell eats licorice. The juggernaut Braves choke every year, and the Dodgers are usually inexplicably awful. In the early going, teams like the Cardinals, picked to dominate the National League, often fail to live up to their potential. And teams like the Twins self-actualize because they think they can play and hate being overlooked. It's overconfidence, nerves, and motivation, the stuff of sports psychology, and it usually wears off.
In 1988, the Baltimore Orioles stood at 1-22 on May 1, having won their first game just the day before. They went 53-84 for the remainder of the season and finished in the cellar as one of the worst teams in history. So April can be a safe predictor. What does it mean this year? The Tampa Bay Devil Rays stink just as bad as their 8-17 record. No fluke.