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April 8, 2011

The BP Broadside

(No) Comeback Impossible

by Steven Goldman

Somewhere in high school or college—I would tell you exactly when, only at this distant remove, my memories of all eight years have blurred into one long montage of sexual frustration—I had to read Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. The play opens with the two characters flipping a series of coins. Improbably, the coin toss always has the same result: heads. The first five words of dialogue are Rosencrantz calling out the results:
 

Ros: Heads.

He picks it up and puts it in his bag. The process is repeated.

Heads.

Again.

Heads.

Again.

Heads.

Again.

Heads.
 

Eventually, Rosencrantz announces that the coin has come up heads 85 consecutive times. Five flips later, it is 90 times. This deeply unsettles Guildenstern, who is aware that the laws of probability should prohibit such a result. He suggests a number of theories to account for the result, finally proposing: “One, probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two, probability is not operating as a factor. Three, we are now within un-, sub- or supernatural forces. Discuss. Not too heatedly.”

Around the same time I was discussing Rosencrantz, not too heatedly, the 1987 season started and a weird thing happened: the Brewers were unbeatable. Normally, at this period in their history the Brewers were lucky if they could find the keys to the ballpark on Opening Day, but in this peculiar season, they could do no wrong—at least for awhile. After 13 games, they were 13-0. They dropped their 14th game, then won another four straight. After beating the Mariners on May 2, they were an incredible 20-3 and were on a pace for a 141-win season. In a season that would prove to be dominated by offense, left-handed ace Teddy Higuera was 5-0 with a 3.25 ERA, while sophomore right-hander Juan Nieves had the same record but had spiced it with a no-hitter against the Orioles. Young outfielder Glenn Braggs was hitting .292/.367/.531; shortstop Dale Sveum was hitting .302/.355/.477. Rob Deer was hitting an incredible .351/.457/.779 with nine home runs in just 77 at-bats.  Paul Molitor began with an 11-game hitting streak, no biggie given that he would hit in 39 straight later that year, and finished April hitting .395/.462/.642.

The Brewers were a team to be reckoned with, which is why they finished the season 135-27, swept the Twins out of the ALCS, and pounded the Cardinals in four straight—except, as you know, they didn’t. After that win on May 2, they wouldn’t shake hands on the field for nearly two weeks, going 0-12 with an RA of 6.02 against the Mariners, Angels, A’s, Royals, and White Sox. Molitor got hurt, and the mostly mediocre hitters who remained went from hitting .299/.368/.486 as a group to .232/.298/.355 during the losing streak. Leading the AL East by five games on May 2, they would trail by six games by the time May was over. They never again rose higher than third place, though a terrific second half (.636) pushed them to 91 wins by the end of the season.

The Brewers had opened the season against the defending AL champion Red Sox. The Sox were not a good team that year; it was perhaps too much to hope that they would be after their disastrous World Series performance of the previous fall. In their case, beginning the year 0-3 did prove to be prophetic—a club that had gone 95-66 in 1986 would win only 78 games in 1987. However, the moral of this story is not that it would be right to dismiss the 2011 Red Sox because they have gone winless through the first week of the season, but that we who were around in that year of Reagan ‘n’ Bork were surely just as optimistic about the Brew Crew’s chances at history as folks are now pessimistic about the 0-6 Red Sox and Rays.

For this column, I don’t want to get into the strengths and weaknesses of either club, the whys and the wherefores of their winless streaks, except perhaps to suggest, as Guildenstern did, that probability is not in force for these clubs, and that they are at the mercy of “un-, sub- or supernatural forces” that are transient and will soon subside. What we seemed to know about them a week ago is what we should still believe. Even good clubs can have a bad week; just last year, the eventual champions lost seven consecutive games from June 26 to July 2. The change in the standings from beginning to end was four games. After breaking the slide, they went on to win 16 of their next 20 contests.

Note that through Wednesday, our playoff odds simulation still gave the Red Sox an 84 percent chance to reach the postseason (in comparison, the Rays are bleeding out at 11 percent, but there was little reason to think that this year’s edition was of the same quality as last year’s to begin with). Despite their winless start, they retain the highest predicted chance of making it to the big October hoedown of any team in baseball, including the 6-0 Rangers (77 percent). There is simply too much that’s good about the Red Sox to believe that their offense will continue to hit .220 on balls in play—even last year’s Mariners, an offensive aggregation that would have been chased off the sandlot by such slugging juggernauts as the 1912 St. Louis Browns, were better than that. Nor will their pitchers unite behind their current 7.13 ERA; not even the 1930 Phillies were capable of that.

The likely reward for the suffering of the club and its fans is that they will make themselves whole against the Yankees. The New Yorkers will pitch two of their weaker links in the first two games of the series. A decisive victory against Phil Hughes in this afternoon’s game would be doubly rewarding, not only breaking whatever heads, heads, heads spell the Sox labor under but sending their arch-rival into paroxysms of panic as they try to figure out what’s wrong with their young righty’s arm. Lashing Nova would have a similar effect; the low-strikeout right-hander may be destined for the bullpen or a bagel, but his future as a starter is far from assured, given his tendency to hit a wall during his third trip through the lineup. Expecting divine providence to grant a sweep with a defeat of CC Sabathia would probably constitute an act of hubris, but considering where the Sox are now, taking two games from the Yankees would be plenty.

Things have looked dire for some preseason favorites, but given the example of the ’87 Brewers, perhaps not even an 0-13 start would be predictive of the season’s outcome. We don’t even need to invoke Yogi Berra’s famous, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over;” in this case, Yogi could stop at “It ain’t over,” before perhaps adding, sotto voce, “dumbass.” Perhaps he could even edit himself down to, “It ain’t,” because any situation that seems impossible or unlikely isn’t going to continue. Nature abhors high-energy systems, and a team that wins or loses all of its games is acting in defiance of entropy.

So, bring a coin to the stands at Fenway, or sit in front of your TV and flip. The results may continue to be wrong until they’re right:


Heads.

Again.

Heads.

Again.

David Ortiz home run.

Again.
 

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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