This post isn’t going to be about numbers. Instead, I want to talk about two teams.
The first team (let’s think of them as Team A) was still rebuilding last year. Organizational difficulties led to a Front Office personnel shakeup, and while many reasons were cited (youth movement still on the way, lack of certainty by new executives regarding organizational talent, restrictive payroll situation), the team was quiet in the offseason.
As a result, expectations were fairly low, and those expectations were met early on. After two months, the team had played .500 ball, which was perhaps a little better than expected, but mostly the kind of run-of-the-mill performance that suggested another washout season. The summer heat then seemed to wilt the team, as it went 10-15 in June, putting it six games out of both the division lead and the second Wild Card spot. While the team played better in July, finishing 13-10, it was never anywhere near competitive, and with the bulk of the league ahead of it in the Wild Card standings, there were only fringe moves made that didn’t really change the composition of the team.
But then, something weird and wonderful happened. The team didn’t really play better in July than it did in August, but suddenly it had strung together two competitive months. Still, no one really foresaw September, where the team reeled off a 17-11 run where it lost only one series all month. With injuries and ineffectiveness piling up across the league, the team made it interesting into the season’s final weekend, but ultimately finished two games back in MLB’s weakest division and two games back of the second Wild Card winner.
Still, the tenor in the fanbase was mostly positive. This wasn’t a team that was supposed to give the fans a chase for a playoff berth. This wasn’t even a team that was supposed to finish over .500. But with young call-ups making key contributions in late summer and as rosters expanded, and the fact that the team finished eight games over .500 after the All-Star Break (that’s a 90-win pace over a full season!), the buzz for the next season was palpable even as ten other lucky squads headed off to October baseball. Things were looking up, for certain. The team wasn’t supposed to win, and it didn’t. But next year, next year would be different. A few voices tried to offer chimes of caution about how the offense that carried the team to its summer victories was based on unsustainable results on balls in play, but how much conviction, or even fun, could be had in belittling something that would have no chance to even out later that year, or in dousing icy water over the hopeful flames of a hungry fanbase?
The second team, Team B, could also have been thought to be in the rebuilding élan. Some Front Office personnel were removed in the twilight of the prior calendar year, and their replacements saw no reason to floor the gas in pursuit of wins. After all, the fanbase had already tolerated losing season after losing season before these new honchos had donned their mantles — why hurry now and run the risk of things blowing up or gand oing sour?
With how things transpired as the season began, though, that patience could have instead been interpreted as foresight. The team blazed out of the gates after they headed north from Spring Training, with a 17-11 April and a 17-12 May. They weren’t supposed to be good, yet here they were, at the top of their league two months in. One hot month? Sure. Two hot months, though? That’s the sort of thing that even nudges sourpusses and skeptics into believing, perhaps. June wasn’t as great, at 14-11, but it was still fine. The team didn’t always beat the teams it should have, and it didn’t glimmer with the sparkle of a Cinderella-type season: some veterans collapsed, key contributors were injured, and not much went according to plan. But for every unexpected bane there were some unexpected boons: fringe players providing key hits, roster filler pickups throwing quality frame after quality frame, a late-career breakout no one saw coming, and a coming-out party that perhaps should have been obvious in retrospect. It was fun.
And then, it wasn’t. The team never really dropped out of contention; the great run in the spring guaranteed that it would hang around unless the rest of the league went on a tear, and that didn’t happen either. July was the toughest month, as the team limped to a 9-14 record. Every time it seemed like a corner was being turned, there was another injury, another blow-up, or just something else. The Tolstoy quote about all happy families being alike and all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way didn’t quite apply, but the team found ways to be differently unhappy in its own way more often than not. Still, with 56 wins through July, the team still seemed prime to grab a playoff spot. The Trade Deadline seemed like an opportunity to improve, but what improvements did come did not substantially change the pallor of the team: the executives decided to dance with the belle that brought them to the dance, perhaps with an added bouquet of fresh roses and a charm bracelet. What you could say in retrospect, though, was that these doodads weren’t enough, or too little, too late: it was all the losses to other playoff contenders in July that sunk the team’s postseason hopes.
August and September featured play that could best be described as treading water: the team finished 28-30 to conclude the year. Things still seemed okay heading into the last week of play, but by the time September 30 came and went, the dust settled in an inauspicious pattern: 84 wins, two games out of the division, two games out of the second Wild Card spot.
Recriminations among the fans were common. The bullpen should have been managed better. Not enough was done at the Trade Deadline — or perhaps too much, shaking up team chemistry. Not enough prospects were called up for late-season shots in the arm — or the team was too young, too inexperienced to withstand the grind of a major league season, and needed more veterans. In the end, you could probably get some nods by averring that it was still a good season: the team outperformed expectations, got some superlative performances, and hell, gave their fans a fun season when they weren’t expecting one. But, what good are nods when compared to the thrill of the postseason, or when compared to the soothing knowledge of looking at the standings at season’s end and seeing your team at the zenith of its division? Loss aversion is a thing, and despite the aversion, loss is what happened: the team had a playoff spot, and then it didn’t. It wasn’t a collapse: the other teams just lost more slowly. It happens, but that doesn’t mean it feels good when it does. Next year would be different, some chanted. But, would it? And how different could it be?
Everything is narrative, narrative is everything
The Braves have 64 games to impel their destiny. With nearly 100 games in the books, I still don’t know how to feel about this team. Is this a good team that arrived ahead of schedule? Is it an okay team with a few too many holes that should have been patched up and/or won’t be patched up sufficiently, or soon enough to matter? Is it a bad team that had a good run?
It’ll all be in the narrative, I guess.
As a separate note, I think a lot about the narratives for every single game. Read the recaps from the two teams’ perspectives: the winning team will focus on who delivered the win; the losing team will focus on who delivered the loss. Reality always meets the narratives somewhere in the middle; everything is always somewhere in the middle. There’s really only one answer, and it’s one we already all knew:
Go Braves — if narratives are what we’re stuck with, give us a good one, not a bad one. Thanks in advance.