June 1, 2006
Memorial Day, the first third of the season, the first of June…all of these things are used as markers to take stock of what's happened, to evaluate teams and players. You'd think that two months of baseball would be enough to reach conclusions, to decide who's naughty and nice and give us a firm grasp on the storylines that we'll be following as the year progresses.
I think if you did, you'd be wrong. If you look around now, you find--yesterday's spate of actual news notwithstanding--a lot of fairly lightweight stories that treat the first two months of the year as providing meaningful information. We see a lot of coverage that treats the Rockies and Tigers as real contenders, the A's as struggling disappointments, the Mets as one of the best teams in baseball.
Yet you go back just one year, and you see how silly conclusions reached on June 1 can be. One year ago, the Baltimore Orioles had the second-best record in the American League and led the AL East by four games. They'd outscored their opponents by 50 runs, one of just two AL teams to do so. The other? The West-leading Texas Rangers, 30-21 with a just-ended nine-game winning streak. Neither team was a factor in August, much less September, but in June, they were the subject of all the same stories.
In the National League, the Houston Astros were in last place in the NL Central, 20-32 with a -44 run differential. They were also about to go crazy on the league, riding a great rotation to 89 wins, a wild-card berth and the franchise's first trip to the World Series. The A's had the exact same record and placement as the Astros did, and made almost the exact same turnaround, finishing 88-74 but falling well short of the postseason in the more stratified AL
We get fooled by two months of baseball, or even more that that, all the time. Do you remember what the big story was during June last year? The Washington Nationals, who went 21-5 with about 19 one-run wins and entered July with a 4 ½-game lead in the NL East. That was a mirage, of course, but go back and look at the coverage from a year ago and tell me if it was covered that way. No, it was all "Frank Robinson" and "great young pitching" and "the excitement of playing in front of actual fans." Really, it was a spate of good luck in close games, which doesn't spread as nicely across your Sunday breakfast table but does have the advantage of being true.
I think the phenomenon of writers leaping onto bandwagons a mix of human nature and the desire to tell a good story. People want to find positive angles, because that's more enjoyable. It's fun to write about the plucky Rockies or the pitching-and-defense Tigers, so any team that puts together two good weeks at some point tends to have the same stories written about them. (Well, maybe not exactly the same.) There's some realpolitik here as well, as sportswriters working at the access level no doubt find it's easier to do their jobs if they focus on the positives and the soft elements, as opposed to asking about run differentials and track records and the three guys with .310 OBPs.
To a certain extent, there's nothing wrong with it. The stories do tend to have a sameness to them, where the players on Team TwoGood Months talk about how the guys are just coming together and doing the little things and enjoying the great clubhouse atmosphere established by Oldie McVeteran. There's rarely any substantial content in the pieces, and heaven knows they're not trying to reach me or your average BP reader or even the guys in your fantasy league. Telling a story is harmless, as long as you acknowledge that's what you're doing, rather than actually looking for reasons behind unexpected success.
I've meandered a bit…what my point is, is that the boring, annoying truth about baseball is that it can fool us for longer than we're comfortable with. We latch on to five-game winning streaks and hot months and even entire halfs, but history shows us, with considerable frequency, that teams make sudden left turns all the time. Of the eight teams in playoff positions a year ago, four ended up playing in the postseason. Of those, the White Sox and Cardinals were the two best teams in the game, the Braves held on in a clustered division, and the Padres actually played below-.500 ball over the last four months, but won the NL West anyway.
So when you look at the standings this morning, remember the 2005 Orioles and Rangers, and think about those Astros and A's. And when some team plays .800 ball this month, let last year's Nationals guide your analysis of the situation. The game is just too complicated to let the desire for a good story get in the way of learning what's really going on.