Thursday, February 23, 2006

To answer a great post by Tom G

Here's Tom's post. I originally wanted to post a response in his comments section, but this ran kind of long.

All this may true about underachieving. But (and since I'm such a contrarian you knew there would be a but) I think we really have to lighten up on ourselves and even on these Phils.

As human beings, we always look for patterns. It's what makes us who we are, and even defines us as either "statheads" or as "seamheads" (a great term, by the way). Statheads have our little techniques on measuring performance, with our regressive analysis and prediction of future performance. Seamheads have been weaned on newspaper writers and more recently talk show hosts (who generally have come from newspaper writers). These newspapermen are not statheads, but writers. As writers, they look for a story, a theme, a theme, and an interesting anecdote. When they look for patterns, these writers use terms such as “Clutch” “Choker” “Underachiever” and “Overachiever” to describe what he sees. In all of these terms, we see a story, or a theme, or a character point.

Thus, a writer will translate the action on the field as a human drama, and thus assign, perhaps, more to the outcome of a game than it warrants.

Maybe the best example I can think of which illustrates the absurdity of this is from a very early “Simpson’s” episode. In it, Mr. Burns organizes a Power Plant softball team made up of the out of shape workers (to illustrate, the star of the team was Homer). After a while, Mr. Burns decides to substitute the entire team with major league ringers such as Ken Griffy Jr., Daryl Strawberry, Roger Clemens, and the like. He then holds a mini-tryout for the new team. Naturally, the pros all make the team and the power plant workers all wash out.

The great scene comes when Mr. Burns addresses the washouts, saying, “I just want to tell you how disappointed I am with you. You all lack a certain something. An indefinable character flaw, which caused your failure.” At the risk of over-explaining the joke, Mr. Burns is considering the players poor athletic skills as indicators of poor character. Of course the thought that they were beer-logged middle-aged desk jockeys competing against professional athletes doesn’t occur to him. It’s all part of a greater story line in his mind, one where internal character always defines performance.

So it is with newspaper writers in general. When a team wins, it is proof of their greater character than the team which lost. The closer the outcome, the more proof it is that it wasn’t a lack of skill, but rather a lack of character which caused the loss. Over the course of a season, the Phils came one game shy of the Wild Card, and almost that close to winning the NL East. But they fell short. And so, as human beings, we look to answer the questions why?

Back to the original point, as statheads, we look and look for some measurable reason why the Phils failed. Maybe, if we can find it, we can fix it. Maybe if we’re smart enough, we can be winners. Likewise, writers look in their crystal balls, and usually find goats to blame for the teams’ overall failure (such as Ed Wade or Mike Lieberthal or Bobby Abreu). Maybe if we replace those people with winners (which are generally hazily defined as “I know one when I see one”), then we can be winners.

But what if the truth is that baseball is not a perfectly predictable game? What if the difference between an 88 game winning team and a 95 game winning team is less than people think? What if it often comes down to a few breaks no one could have predicted? What if the Phils played as well as they could have and just came up short? Is that so unacceptable?

The Phils scored over 800 runs last year. When it comes to the point where we are chasing ill-defined terms for a lousy 15 (less than 2%) runs a season, can’t we just say “Well, maybe it’s a rounding error.” Isn’t it possible that the hazy fog of luck is greater than the baserunning errors we sometimes see our Phils make?

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