I’ve been living in Chicago since 2010, so when people ask me about the Cubs’ current run of success, it’s less because I’m a baseball fan and more because I’m the closest they have to an on-the-ground correspondent. It’s as if Anderson Cooper is breathlessly questioning me about The Baseball Spring: “After all this time, can it be true? Is the old regime truly gone? Can you comment on the peoples’ reactions to this new dawn?”
And while the Cardinals and Pirates wait in the wings to potentially shock this triumphant narrative back into the dreary everyday, they're a healthy 8 1/2 and nine games back, and there is a level of palpable optimism and confidence that I’ll admit I didn’t see for five years living, say, a block and a half from Wrigley. So when people ask, I tell them, yeah—people are really, really excited. It’s been a long time coming.
The long time coming, not the Cubs, is what I want to interrogate a bit today. Because throughout the long rebuilding process in Chicago, Cubs fans often loathed that long time and questioned it, Moses in the Desert style. It’s no fun to wander for 40 days and 40 nights, especially if that involves watching blowouts in the 42 degree Chicago spring. People on the radio questioned Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer—“I thought this was supposed to be a three-year process!” “Theo’s plan makes it a 10-year process, we’re never gonna see a pennant!”—and around, say, 2013, there was widespread pessimism. How long, the average fan asked, can I handle a 65-win team?
The answer to that question is a bit murky, if only because it’s beyond my pay grade to psychoanalyze the thousands of Cubs fans I waded through to get to my apartment or the El. But a related question we might more fruitfully pose is how many 65-win seasons can a team, or a player handle? In the era of the pre-planned tank in baseball, this is a fairly crucial question boiling down to, if you are an owner, the calculus of balancing your diminishing on-field returns with your financial bottom line. How bad, in other words, is too bad? When does failure start to cost more than it’s worth?
It seems to me there are two ways to look at this: practically and theoretically. The practical side of things is a little difficult. We all know that the “player who doesn’t have the fire of the postseason” cliché about young players on losing teams is silly. Starlin Castro has played just fine in New York; Felix Hernandez, despite being on a perpetually snakebitten M’s team remains sublime; I’m sure if Sam Miller put his prodigious play indexing abilities to work, he could find a number of tremendous, high WARP players who never had a shot on a winning team. Good players play well regardless of locale.
It also is true, at least anecdotally, that losing streaks rarely prompt the dissolution or relocation of an entire team. The Montreal Expos were, yes, abysmal through much of their later pre-Nationals tenure, but two of the three seasons prior to the move (2002 and 2003), they were above 500 and would’ve probably been in the hunt in the two-wild-card era. And many teams have suffered through monstrous losing streaks, from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays first 10 years to the 20 years of losing baseball that are finally in the Pirates’ rearview mirror, and while they have led to firings, they have rarely prompted total organizational failure. Without being able to see the actual books of MLB teams, we may never know if losing streaks really truly do put teams in jeopardy of going belly up, but my guess is that, no, simply losing for a while cannot destroy a franchise.
So, losing can’t hurt, right? On the surface, no (though we should be careful to note that there are serious arguments against intentional tanking that are worth fleshing out, perhaps in next week’s column). Players develop on losing teams, and organizations continue to survive putting out losing teams—but for the poor managers and GMs who are fodder to the losing streak, it seems like bad teams who lose baseball games are not killing baseball. And if honest-to-god losing, losing that is recognized as losing and not just random variance or bad luck, losing that has at least the whiff of competitive spirit—if that losing isn’t going to hurt baseball, the next question might be: Well, can it help?
My inclination is that, yes, it can. Intuitively speaking, baseball is a game premised on failure, so much so that even trying to talk about failure in baseball opens one up to tautology after tautology. It’s not exactly breaking news that, if you fail 60 percent of the time at the plate, you’re probably still a very good baseball player. It’s also not shocking news that the game is premised on an uneven matchup between the advantaged pitcher and disadvantaged hitter: That’s the basic mechanic of the game itself. And finally, we all know that failure and adjustment is critical to success at any level of player development. To bring back the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo couldn’t hit lefties, and he was an okay first baseman; in 2014, he discovered that he could, and now he’s elite. As Samuel Beckett long ago commanded (probably, like, secretly about baseball): fail better.
But beyond the simple aspect, I think it’s important to see failure as immediately generative. Failure, that is the failure that leads someone in a baseball org to say “well that didn’t work,” leads to new experiments, new approaches, and new inspirations. Judith Halberstam, the literary critic and queer theorist, has this to say in her recent book, The Queer Art of Failure:
“What kinds of reward can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (3).
Failure, Halberstam tells us, is an opportunity to get a new start, particularly (and here’s the useful part) a new start away from the incorrect strategies and norms that we’ve been told work well for so long. The easiest example of this is the failed-starter-to-reliever project that has produced some of the best arms in the game. Wade Davis was mercurial and frustrating as a starter; as a reliever (a “failed” career path), he is perhaps the most dominant in the game. Josh Donaldson came up—stop me if you’ve heard this one—as a catcher but was moved to third base. Again, a failure if you trust the spectrum of defensive importance, which clearly valorizes catcher over infielder, but a success for the player and the organization as Donaldson mashes and stays healthy.
Not only are these failures spun into positives, in other words, they are literally necessary in order to get to the positive outcome we see today. Without the bad moments—Wade Davis can’t start; Josh Donaldson isn’t a good catcher—we can’t get the elite outcomes: Wade Davis is a superstar closer; Josh Donaldson might be the best third baseman in the American League. Coaching looms large here, as failure doesn’t naturally look like a good thing for hypercompetitive people like MLB-caliber players, as does makeup. Perhaps, once again, there’s a reason that the “human element” hasn’t vanished entirely.
On the other end of the spectrum, further away from this human element, the front office and baseball operations departments of teams can gain from failure as well. For every Jeff Luhnow or Theo Epstein styled five-year-plan, there is an equal and opposing Mike Rizzo or Dave Dombrowski development-year-by-year method. And this latter method is fascinating to me, simply because it requires the teams to dwell seriously on their failures in order to succeed. Sometimes this leads to Sisyphean consequences like Dombrowski’s permanent quest to build a successful bullpen. Other times, it leads to subtle shifts and decisions that tweak an already good team into a great team. I’d be hard pressed to tell you exactly how, for instance, Rizzo has kept the Nats on an uphill trajectory, even after two disappointing years, but additions large (Daniel Murphy, Max Scherzer) and small (Ben Revere, Michael Taylor from Triple-A) have kept adding to what is an already good core without overreacting and destroying what works at the same time.
This last bit, perhaps, is the real key to learning from failure. Because certainly, even the best-laid plans don’t always work out. I’m sure Epstein and Hoyer, looking at the 2013 trade deadline, had a bit of a dark night of the soul before the Jake Arrieta trade redirected the course of their baseball fortunes. And when one has that dark night, one should look honestly at what worked and what didn’t, with the knowledge that, fundamentally and by definition, there will always be something that didn’t. If the baseball GM looking at these successes and failures is unable to self-reflexively critique their methodology, then that’s likely fatal; if they are too willing to bend to momentary failure and change everything on a dime, that’s also probably bad. It’s a fine balance.
In that balance, somewhere in between, we recognize that, in baseball, failure occurs far more often than success and we can begin to redefine our failures not as humiliations but as opportunities for adjustment and reflection. Because the only reason that baseball moves forward is that someone looks at the normal wisdom of the game and says “I’m not wrong, everything else is wrong” and fixes it. That failure is necessary, important, and in its own way, it’s kind of beautiful.