Yes, it’s time for the Indians to panic

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Cleveland Indians reached the Panic Number on Monday.

This is not some nebulous figure. The Panic Number is serious business. It portends doom for those unlucky enough to tumble into it. A sub-.500 record is almost a given. Playoffs? Say it like Jim Mora, because the chances are that slim.

And the thing is, because teams reach the Panic Number roughly a week into the season, there’s a natural inclination to scoff at it, to laugh it off as some kind of reactionary hokum not worth discussing.

So before burying the Indians with more than 95 percent of their season to play, allow us to present a few facts: Over the past 25 full seasons, 45 teams in Major League Baseball have begun their seasons 1-6 or worse. Of those 45, eight have finished the year with a better-than-average record. And of those eight, only one – the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies – made the postseason. In which they were promptly swept.

See why we call 1-6 the Panic Number?

It gets uglier when looking at the full seasons of the wild-card era. Since 1996, only three teams have finished above .500 after starting 1-6: the ’04, ’06 and ’07 Phillies, who seem to have a knack for reversing ugly starts.

The Indians, on the other hand, have started 1-6 twice since 1982. They went 60-102 the first time, 61-101 the second. And after a 4-2 loss to Kansas City on Monday left them staring at that record and the grimy fate that almost always accompanies it, the Indians did what all teams that get off to bad starts do: They got defensive and said they’d turn it around.

“What are we, seven games into the season?” Indians catcher Kelly Shoppach said. “I think we’re OK. Still got some time to make up some ground.”

While that seems perfectly reasonable – after all, 155 games remain – recent history suggests otherwise. Teams that hit the Panic Number in the past 25 full seasons averaged 70.4 victories. They weren’t all historically bad – only eight 100-loss teams are in the group – but the across-the-board failure was too significant to ignore.

(And since we’re in full-disclosure mode, it would be irresponsible not to point out that the Cincinnati Reds won the NL Central in the strike-shortened 1995 season after finishing 1-6. Two other Panic Number teams that year didn’t make the playoffs, and two more from the strike-canceled ’94 season wouldn’t have been in the postseason, either.)

Washington and Houston hit the Panic Number this week, too. Though neither can thank its pitching staff – and, in particular, its starting rotation – quite like Cleveland. Fausto Carmona’s five-inning, four-run performance Monday lowered the rotation’s earned-run average from 11.62 to 10.91. Before Anthony Reyes gave up four runs in six innings Sunday in the Indians’ first victory, Scott Lewis led Cleveland’s rotation with an 8.31 ERA. Carl Pavano, the Indians’ starter on Tuesday, has an 81.00 ERA, which makes his teammates look positively Gibsonian.

“Right now,” Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta said, “nothing is working.”

The Indians’ bullpen did throw three scoreless innings Monday to drag the team ERA down to 8.24, and as the season progresses, it surely will drop a few more points. And yet, the question will fester: Is it too little, too late? Or perhaps more pointed: Did Cleveland really blow its season on a mid-April Monday in Kansas City?

Well, teams that begin the season 2-5 certainly have a better shot at the postseason than their brethren one game back. Since 1996, seven teams that began with a record of 2-5 or worse made the postseason, accounting for 6.7 percent of postseason slots. One of those teams, the 2003 Florida Marlins, won the World Series.

From ’82 to ’93, before the wild card, only two teams that started 2-5 qualified for the playoffs. The 1985 Cardinals went to Game 7 of the World Series. The 1991 Twins won Game 7 of the World Series.

So while the success of 2-5 teams is minuscule in the grand scheme, they’re driving Bentleys compared to the 1-6 crowd that chugs alongside in a rusted-out Datsun.

“We’ll get it,” Indians manager Eric Wedge said. “We’ll figure it out.”

Perhaps he’s right. One particular factor plays in Cleveland’s favor: the AL Central looks like a wasteland. Minnesota desperately misses Joe Mauer. Kansas City can’t score. Detroit’s pitching is suspect, and it could pawn off its remaining talent this summer. And Chicago, the division’s defending champion, doesn’t inspire much fear.

Maybe the Indians can spit in the face of the Panic Number. The talent is there, if Cliff Lee can find his reigning Cy Young self, and Carmona can regain his 2007 form, and Grady Sizemore and Mark DeRosa and Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner and Shin-Soo Choo comprise the top of a potentially potent lineup.

Those are a lot of ifs. And Wedge remembers the 2007 Tigers. They were the favorites to win the AL Central, like the Indians this year. Detroit started 0-7. It finished 74-88 and in the Central cellar.

Still, Wedge won’t kowtow to what the Panic Number foretells.

“I can’t do it,” he said. “Fans are allowed to. Other people, too. But I know where we are, and what we need to do, and it’s just matter of doing it.”

Fair enough, and, really, now, Cleveland has suffered enough baseball disappointment, hasn’t it? No need to salt a wound.

So … hey, Boston. Guess what? The Red Sox are 2-5.

Not time to panic. But it’s pretty close.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Apr 14, 2009