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The Greatest 0-6 Team Ever

It has been a tough week. After an off-season filled with visions of October glory dancing in our heads, the season began and the mighty Sox burst out of the gate to a 1-7 record, being swept by Texas and Cleveland over the first six games. As a result, there has been much gnashing of teeth, many lamentations, and a mountain of hyperbole. However, the sports writing world has not been as eager to provide historical perspective or rationality.

The most commonly cited statistic concerning the Sox' terrible start has been this jewel: no team to start a season 0-6 has ever gone to the World Series. This little tidbit has been solemnly recited as the death knell for Boston fans’ October dreams. Yet, there is a massive logic flaw in this reasoning. The two teams that play in the Fall Classic each year are, of course, very good teams, and very good teams have fewer and shorter losing streaks. Since the first six games only occur once every season, it would naturally be rare for a great team to lose those first six games. However, we should ask: is it rare for a good team to loss six straight games at any point in the season?

In truth, it is shockingly common for teams to lose six straight games in a season. Last year’s World Champion Giants lost seven straight games from June 26, to July 7. Of the past ten World Series winners, six have had at least six game losing streaks at some point during the season. Even some of the greatest teams in history have lost six in a row at some point. The 1939 Yankees had a six game losing streak on their way to a record of 106-45 and a sweep of the World Series. Even the mighty Big Red Machine lost six in a row at one point in 1975. Even among very good teams, six game losing streaks are not uncommon. If this streak did not come at the start of the year, it would be relatively uninteresting.

Still, these were the first six games and that makes it feel so much worse. Most of the teams throughout history which lost their first six games were lousy teams. However, there is, one exception. The 1974 Pittsburgh Pirates dropped the first six games of season, one of two six games losing streaks the team would endure on their way to a solid 88-74 record and a first place finish in their division (they lost in the NL championship to the LA Dodgers). A quick look at the ’74 Pirates reveals a shockingly similar situation to our 2011 Red Sox.

Not only did the Pirates lose their first six games, but they went 1-7 in their first eight games. They had an imposing lineup featuring Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, star center fielder Al Oliver, veteran first baseman Bob Robertson and third basemen Richie Hebner. Their pitching staff was a combination of promising youngsters like Jerry Ruess and declining veterans just a few years removed from greatness (Dock Ellis). They had won a World Series two years earlier and were expected to be in the race again in 1974.

The Pirates lost four of their first six games to a very good Cardinals team and the other two to a weak Montreal team. They were shutout once, managed only one run in another loss and were outscored 24 to 44 over the first six games. However, unlike the 2011 Red Sox, the Pirates lost some tough games, with three of the six losses coming in extra innings. The Pirates ranked 10th out of twelve teams in runs allowed and had the worst record in the National League after the first eight games.

By the end of the season, Pittsburgh had recovered to post the third best record in the National League and won the Eastern division. While the end results might bode well for our Red Sox, the road to the playoffs the 1974 Pirates took is not one that will delight Boston fans much. The Pirates didn’t just struggle out of the gate; they wallowed in mediocrity for most of the summer. They did not break .500 until August 16, besting the Dodgers in their 119th game of the season to finally become a winning team. They needed a league best 28-15 record after that point to edge out the Cardinals by 1.5 games. They won the division in the final two games of the season and at 88-74, they had underperformed their Pythagorean record by three games.

The similarities between the 2011 Red Sox and the greatest team ever to go 0-6 to start the season are both a reason for optimism and a cause for concern. The ’74 Pirates were very talented and in the end that talent won out. Their slow start was not reflective of the team they would be by the beginning of October. However, that slow start did hurt them. They did not just drop a few games before settling in to a strong season, they labored for months to climb out of the substantial hole they dug in April. In the end, their record was not as good as it could have been and they made the playoff by the hairs on the chinny-chin chins.

If the 2011 Red Sox are going to replace the 1974 Pirates as the greatest team ever to start the season 0-6, they will need to start winning games earlier than those Pirates did. Their division will not as forgiving as the NL East was back then and their fans and management will be far less tolerant of a losing record at the trade deadline. This poor start is not a death sentence, but it should be a warning. These games count gentlemen; they count just as much as games in September.

Now repeat after me: let’s go RED SOX!