Monday, April 29, 2013

Winning Don't Come Easy

So, how's your dream season treating you? Are we having fun yet?

Over the first four weeks of the season, I've found myself stifling the impulse - sometimes successfully - to lecture fans like a scolding auntie. "Don't throw paper airplanes!" "Stop booing your own players!" "Cheer in anticipation, not just in reaction!" "It's early!"

Nag, nag, nag.

Mostly, though, I've tried to resist the urge to harangue fans for the manner in which they express themselves, because really, who am I to say how you should cheer on your team? Or maybe more to the point, who am I to tell you how you should express your outrage at how the season has unfolded thus far?

At the same time, it seems as if the Jays' floundering start to the schedule has made a vocal portion of the fanbase go positively loony. Observing what happens when outlandish preseason expectations collide violently with a poor start is the stuff of which Funniest Home Videos are made.

Still, if you count yourself among the patient or rational at this point, it's getting harder to maintain a position that we'll soon return to something resembling normalcy. In fact, if my Twitter interactions are any way to gauge the conversation - they're probably not, but play along - then anyone who shows something less than outright rage towards the team gets assailed as a simpleton and an apologist. 

And look: I get it. This has been one of the most disheartening starts to a season in recent memory, which is only magnified by that initial excitement. There's 20 years of pent up enthusiasm waiting to be unleashed, but over the first month, we've been treated to some underwhelming pitching, awful fielding and offense that is seemingly incapable of sustaining a rally more than once per week.

Yes, it's been some nasty-looking baseball in the early-going. But one of the things that some fans forget about baseball over the long winter is that the game is replete with negative outcomes. It's really the nature of the sport that success is often a function of just not failing.

This certainly runs counter to the way in which we discuss sports, especially in Canada. Our winter pastime is so overrun with conventional wisdom that many of us fall into the trap of addressing sports in absolute terms. "You gotta," as they say.

"You gotta catch that." "You gotta hit with runners in scoring position." "You gotta take your bat off your shoulders." "You gotta beat those teams."

But the fact is that baseball - perhaps more than any other sport - resists those absolutist tropes. Good players make bad plays. Bad players have good at bats. Bad teams beat good teams. Bad pitchers strike out good hitters. Good teams have bad weeks, and bad months, and even bad seasons.

Take, for instance, the 1986 Blue Jays. Coming off their first playoff appearance and a 99-win season, the almost identical team won 13 fewer games. They scored marginally more runs, but almost every starting pitcher had a down year the following year. Same set of people, with presumably the same skills as the year before, but lesser results. It happens.

What we've seen thus shouldn't be taken to represent what the rest of the season will look like. Though this team has far underperformed over the first weeks, there is so much more baseball to play yet, as tiresome as it is to hear that said repeatedly. I get tired of saying it. 

And we shouldn't forget that winning is a painful process in baseball. Few teams ever truly run away with a division, or clinch a playoff berth with ease. Even for the best teams, it's always a long and agonizing season, filled with bad series and bad breaks and injuries and ump shows and dunderheaded managerial decisions.

To be a baseball fan, you have to embrace the agony.


Dan Daoust said...

Yeah, but still.

Spiffy McBang said...

I'm not prone to raging over things I can't control. And I want to believe there's plenty of season left for the Jays to get it together to make the playoffs. So I googled the AL standings for previous years, back to 2000, to see how many wins it's taken for teams to secure the wild card spot.

The highest was 102. The lowest was 91 (twice). The median was 95.

If we assume it would take 91 wins to make the play-in game- probably too low, given that last year the Orioles and Rangers needed 93- the Jays would have to win 82 games the rest of the way. That pace equals 98 wins over the course of a full season. I don't think anyone expected all that of the team, and that's a best-case scenario.

So, while I'm not angry, I am disappointed to be in April and already feel like the team is destined to play for next year. I understand that sounds like I'm jumping the gun way too fast, seeing as that 98-or-more-game pace could decrease dramatically if the team pulled a week-long winning streak out of their asses, but being in this division (several Central and West champions had 90 or fewer wins) means any such run would have to be combined with a high level of consistency the rest of the time, and it would have to start today.

If September comes and the Jays are even sniffing a playoff spot, I'll break out my pom poms and cheer my little head off for them to finish the job. But it doesn't seem reasonable to even hope for that right now unless something drastic changes with their fortunes, even if that change only boils down to getting wins because they've found a way to stop Travis Hafner from kicking them all over the field.

JaysMiLBStats said...

Everything you said was true, my friend. The only caveat here is: at which point is the hill too steep to climb? We don't have the luxury of making the " tough schedule" excuse, despite playing 39 games in 41 days, because, hey, it only gets tougher ahead. At some point, it becomes too late to dig ourselves out of this hole. Seeing that this team definitely has the potential of getting worse as its aging "stars" get worse and better paid I tend to think that this season was "the one". Then again, Buehrle can rebound, JJ resign for next to nothing and start his march towards Cy Young-hood, Bautista start OPSing a 1000 again etc etc.

Chad said...

What would Keith Law say?

At least if we're sellers at the deadline, we'll have lots to sell!

Jim ndawn said...

I'm a little concerned that the underperformers that we have were underperformers in Miami. Maybe we were expecting miracles?

Spiffy McBang said...

Buehrle has been consistent everywhere he's been. Maybe he'll keep being awful because he misses his pit bull, but it seems more likely he'll figure it out. And Johnson's risk is injury; he's never posted a 4+ ERA except in 2007, when he only made four starts.

If there's a real concern to be had about either of them posting numbers substantially worse than they have in their careers to date, I'd pin it on the defense playing behind them. Crap fielding doesn't necessarily show up as errors, but it does lead to higher ERAs and more losses.

Chad said...

I am happy we got some meaningful games in this year. Sure, I hoped for meaningful games in September, but having some meaningful games in the first week of April was pretty meaningful.