Panic, Projection, And The Joys Of Extremely Early Baseball
Baseball has only just started, which means we know even less than usual. But in a long season that unfolds in overheated moments, the confusion fits perfectly.
Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
The 2016 baseball season has arrived. Everyone commence feeling bad immediately. Sure, you're happy now; you missed the game and it's back. It won't last. If you're a fan, you'll eventually find your way to at least short-term misery. It's baked into the way we look at the game, recency bias convincing us that if Starlin Castro goes 2-for-4 he's figured things out and is ready to hit .350; that Clayton Kershaw being blown up in a single start means his arm is hanging by a thread; that an April winning streak by a Cincinnati Reds team that promised to be terrible has reached its Scott Schebler-prophesied promised land.
Weirdly enough, some of that may even be true. It's just not healthy to think so. There is proof of this everywhere, and no indication that anyone's behavior is about to change.
Whether you were a Mets fan or not, one of the unheralded pleasures of following baseball in the mid-1980s was listening to Howie Rose take calls on his radio post-game show. Rose grew up a Mets fan, but he maintained objectivity and perspective in his broadcasts. In 1991, manager Bud Harrelson canceled his pregame interviews with Rose because he felt the host was too mean to him, largely Rose kept gently pointing out the team wasn't very good. This mostly confirmed that Harrelson did not have much of a future as a major league manager, but it also demonstrated Rose's evenhandedness despite working for a license-holder.
After each game, Rose would take calls that, win or lose, always had the same basic tone, that of imminent doom. Rose would initially respond with polite incredulity, but by the third or so call this seemingly affable man sounded frustrated enough to eat his microphone. I'm paraphrasing these from memory roughly 30 years on, but this is close enough to verbatim:
LARRY FROM OZONE PARK: Strawberry went 0-for-5 tonight. He's killing the team. Trade him now while he still has value!
ROSE: HE'S GOT 37 HOME RUNS! COME ON! [Sound of garments rending.]
Then there was the losing-streak call:
RANDY FROM RONKONKOMA: Two straight losses to the Pirates. The season is over! Fire the manager! Fire everybody!
ROSE: THEY'RE LEADING THE DIVISION BY 10 GAMES WITH NINE TO PLAY! [Sound of adult man sobbing.]
Rose couldn't have known that someday social media would eventually make it possible for pessimists and paranoids to celebrate doomsday everyday, together, in self-sustaining despair cults that no longer needed access to the airwaves. This is an area where we might suffer from a surfeit of democracy: by losing interlocutors such as Rose, who could offer reassurance or mockery when we were at our most insecure, we've been left alone with our unmediated feelings. Perhaps old-time interpreters of events such as Walter Cronkite infantilized the public by acting as imaginary uncles and sparing it the work of thinking for itself. Now we make up our own minds, but we don't necessarily make them up well.
Many of Rose's postgame shows took place during seasons when the Mets were competitive or reached the postseason; they demonstrate the risk of being over-invested in any given day's results. If the ball bounces right, Ted Williams can hit like Tommy Thevenow and vice-versa; Philip Humber can throw a perfect game and Tom Seaver can get thrashed. The value of this information going forward is small. When George Bell hit three home runs on Opening Day 1988, he was on a pace for 486 round-trippers in the mathematical sense only.
Similarly, when the Giants hit back-to-back-to-back home runs against the Brewers on Monday, you shouldn't have assumed that the whole year would go that way for the Brewers. You'd be right, but you shouldn't. A six-month deluge will not prevent the Yankees from playing 81 games at home, though given the latest news on global warming a season-long rain delay may very well happen within the lifetimes of children born today. It would be fun to think, based on one game, that Chase Utley is young again and Yasiel Puig has uncorked the genie that made him such fun in '13 and '14, but the Dodgers probably won't get both, and maybe not either.
You might have seen the modern-day avatars of Howie Rose's Pain throwing out these sorts of thoughts on Twitter during Sunday night's Mets loss to the Royals. Yoenis Cespedes will be a fatal butcher in the outfield and David Wright is done. Matt Harvey's bladder is worn through like an old sock. You know the song.
And yeah, that's hysteria speaking. But if we push inward towards sanity, the funny thing is that while most speculations based on Opening Day/early performances will prove to be not only false but very, very false, one or two might turn out to be true. The question is, which ones?
That is, as the cliché goes, why they play the games. Anyway, the season for predictions has passed so I'm not going to venture any. I mean, I feel better about the Mariners than some of the projection systems, and that is not changed by an awkward first day loss in which they one-hit the Rangers and somehow still fumbled the game away. I was bearish on Zack Greinke's move to Arizona even before Monday night's poor performance, and I still am even now that we know Greinke was pitching with the flu. I understand why the Royals are predicted to post a losing record, but in my heart I don't believe it. I don't trust the Orioles to put themselves in a position to win; I'm not sure the Rays will hit enough; the Yankees are old, bland, and lack starting pitching depth; even with David Price in the mix the Red Sox' rotation seems mediocre; the Blue Jays pretty much have to regress... So I guess I'm saying no one is going to win the AL East.
I could go on with these vague presentiments, but I'd rather just give things a month and see what happens. Thirty games in, we'll have a better idea of what's going on. Or maybe we won't: on May 10 last year, both the Blue Jays and Cubs were both only .500. The Pirates and the Reds had the same 15-16 record; the former had the best record in the National League the rest of the way, the latter the worst. The Tigers, at 19-13, were on a pace for 96 wins, and then they went 55-74 after that, the worst record in the American League over the remainder of the season. We can make educated guesses about the future, and given the linear way baseball unfolds we'll be right a lot of the time. The Angels, Braves, Phillies, Brewers, Reds, Padres, and Rockies will probably be as bad as advertised, but maybe one of them won't be. There's enough variation that the game will make suckers of us somewhere. That is, after all, the story of last year's Astros.
In 1931, journalist Edward Angly published a book called Oh Yeah? It'is a compilation of quotes from all the experts who said the worst of the Great Depression was over and things were getting better. There are a couple hundred of them. "The worst is over without a doubt." "We have hit bottom and are on the upswing." "I see no reason why 1931 should not be an extremely good year." Actually, they hadn't come close to hitting bottom yet; 1931 would be bad, 1932 would be even worse, and full prosperity wouldn't be restored until World War II put everyone back to work—10 years after the book came out. The moral of the story is no one knows anything.
There's even a baseball version from the same period: The manager of the defending World Series-champion Giants, Bill Terry, was asked to rate the rival Dodgers' chances for the 1934 season. He acted as if he'd forgotten they existed, asking, "Is Brooklyn still in the league?" It was a joke, but the Dodgers and their fans took it seriously. That September, the Giants hosted the Dodgers; they were in first place by one game on the Cardinals with two to play. The Cardinals won out. The Dodgers beat the Giants in both games, sending them home for the winter. "The Dodgers are in the league," said Brooklyn manager Casey Stengel, "but not very still."
It's all in the future, so take it easy. Try not to care so much for now. There will be plenty of time for all of Cassandras to be proven right. Sure, Wright is 33 going on 64 and Cespedes will be swallowed up by center field. Yes, Asdrubal Cabrera has the range of a '75 Chevy Nova on blocks. Matt Harvey is the Swiss Army Knife of injuries and may suffer a sprained colon. Curtis Granderson could conceivably get old and Bartolo Colon is objectively old. They're horrible, they're terrible, and also they'll probably win 90 or more games. So harbor all your doubts, but for God's sake, don't tell anybody. Especially Howie Rose. He's heard it all before.