In my latest piece at ESPN, I looked at the importance of the early rounds of the season. I showed that teams who win their first game of the season go on to win 12.3 games in the home-and-away season, on average, while first-round losers average only 9.7 wins for the year. The first chart in the ESPN piece showed these averages across the four rounds, showing that teams that start the season 4-0 go on to win an average of 15.2 in the season, while teams with a 0-4 first month are on pace to win just 5.4 games.
Here’s a version of that graph extended to the full home-and-away season. Cool, IMO. Using this chart, you can look up how many games your team is on pace to win for the year. For example – if your team has won 6 from their first 9 (a 6-3 record), then they’re on pace to win 13.9 for the year – enough to comfortably make the finals.
One thing you’ll notice if you spend long enough starting at that chart is that winning early games makes more of a difference to teams’ expected season win totals than winning later in the season. The difference between winning and losing the first game of the season is 2.6 expected wins (12.3 minus 9.7). This is quite a large difference. Similarly, take a look at teams that are 1-3 in their first month; if they win their next game, they’re on pace to win 10.8 for the year, while losing puts them on pace to win just 6.7 for the year, a 4.1 difference in average wins. The further we progress in the season, the less common it is to find games like this.
In the early rounds, there is a big difference between the average season win totals for teams that win and lose their next game. That difference declines as the season goes on. Towards the end of the home-and-away rounds, the typical win adds 0.5 to a team’s expected season win total.
It’s possible to start the year slowly, but come home strong and make the finals. Richmond’s 2014 run is the best illustration of this. But such seasons are pretty rare – early games tell us a lot about how many wins a team is likely to rack up for the year. The first month matters.
Benjamin Morris’ FiveThirtyEight piece on early games in the NFL inspired this piece. Please read his for further explanation.