Rationally Irrational

As I write this Tuesday evening, the Mariners are one game over .500 and trying to make it two. So, naturally, the newsosphere is full of caution. “The season is only a third over.” “A lot could change quickly.” “This is no time for irrational optimism.”

Talk about radical misperception.

Baseball is all about irrational optimism.

Think about it: At least 50 times in each game, somebody voluntarily confines himself to a small box while another guy throws rocks at him. Blunt force trauma is no less dangerous to life and limb than holes-poked-in-you trauma is. Yet these people are optimistic that those rocks won’t hit them–and that they can use a piece of wood to defend themselves against the rock-thrower.

That’s pretty darn irrational.

Every year fans decide, on no evidence whatsoever, that this will be their team’s year.

Ridiculously irrationally optimistic.

The commissioner forces through strange new rules in the hope of making games shorter, yet never addresses any of the delaying tactics players use to control the pace of the game.

Incredibly, stupidly, irrationally optimistic.

So don’t talk to me about keeping my hopes realistic.

Bigger picture: America is full of irrational optimists right now. Justifiably so in many ways.

Removing mask mandates and distancing rules even though vaccination rates are still hovering around 50%. Trusting the unvaccinated to not claim to be vaccinated. Expecting Republican lawmakers to respond favorably to appeals to patriotism, honor, and justice.

It’s been a very long year and a half. Nobody is going to dial it back and settle for rational optimism.

Not that rational optimism is even being offered. This is a confrontational, contrary age. Irrational optimism not your bag? Your only alternative today is irrational pessimism. “Earth is going to be destroyed by an asteroid.” “COVID-19 is the first stage of the zombie apocalypse.” “The Mariners won’t win another game this season.

I don’t know about you, but if I have to make that choice, I’m not going to pick looming disaster. We’ve been there and done that for quite long enough, thank you.

While I was writing the previous two paragraphs, the Mariners gave up six runs in one inning. I’m choosing irrational optimism. Maybe they’ll come back in the last three innings to win. If not, there’s going to be another game tomorrow. After all, the season is only a third over and a lot could change quickly.

Saw That Coming

I’m just surprised it took this long.

The As are threatening to relocate out of Oakland if the city doesn’t roll over and a give the okay for them to build a new ballpark downtown. And, naturally, they have the full support of MLB for a possible move.

This, of course, is only the first step. Once the stadium location is approved, that same threat will be deployed again and again.

Remember, the Athletics currently own half of the Coliseum site and they’re negotiating with the city to buy the other half. Their plan is, apparently, to redevelop the site into housing and shopping–it’s right across the street from a BART station, so (assuming BART recovers from the COVID-19 transit slump) access is easy from anywhere in the Bay Area. There’s a lot of money to be made off that space.

Don’t be surprised if the As threaten to leave town if Oakland doesn’t sell to them (or a third party they’re confident they can work with). After all, they’re going to need that income to pay for the new ballpark.

Naturally, they’d never threaten to leave town if Oakland doesn’t kick in substantial money toward stadium construction. Significantly more than the ballclub is likely to pay for the Coliseum site.

The threat is as inevitable as it is depressing. We’ve seen it over and over again, every time a team in any sport wants a new home.

But to be fair, what other leverage does a sports team have? Fans will come out to see a losing team almost as readily as they will a winner, so threatening to tank (unofficially, of course, as saying it in so many words would get the team sanctioned by their league) wouldn’t accomplish anything. “Help pay for the new stadium or we’ll stay in the old one,” is no threat at all.

And it’s certainly a stronger threat for Oakland than it was in most of the occasions it’s been trotted out since the Sixties. After all, the Raiders are in Vegas now, and the Warriors are in San Francisco. If Oakland lost the As too, that’s one heck of a lot of tax money vanishing from the civic coffers.

So get ready to hear “we’re exploring our options” over and over and over for the next few years.

2021 Prognostication

Here we are, a week and a half into the MLB season. Time for me to try my hand at picking this season’s winners and losers.

In addition to the traditional rainouts, this year we once again face the prospect of covidouts. Makes looking six months out a bit tricky, but hey, as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it. Okay, so maybe everyone does do it. Never mind, I’m forging ahead.

I’m going back to my original practice of picking the playoff teams without weighing in on the playoff results. I’ll leave that prediction for the end of the season.

As usual, my picks are based primarily on run differential, with ties broken by a combination of won/loss record, run ratio, and personal prejudice. In other words, much the same approach every prognosticator uses.

Data is as of the end of the day yesterday, April 13th.

Starting with the National League, it appears our East Division winner will be Miami, thanks to their stellar accomplishment in scoring exactly as many runs as they’ve given up.

Cincinnati claims the Central Division on a +22 run differential.

Impressive, but it’s not even close to the stunning +30 LA put up to claim the West. Darn it.

As for the Wild Card, San Diego strolls in with a +16, distantly followed by Milwaukee’s +7.

Not much controversy there. And, disappointingly little opportunity for me to exercise my prejudices. I will note that it warms my heart to see the Nationals, owners of the MLB-worst 2-6 record are also holders of the NL-worst run differential at -18. There are, of course, many games left this year (we hope!), but it’s not unreasonable to count Washington out.

Moving on to the AL, the outcome looks just as clear. (Amazing what a difference it makes when you use data from ten to twelve games instead of one or two.)

Our Eastern winner is obviously going to be Boston. Despite a slow start, they’ve still managed to put up a +17 to dominate the division.

Minnesota is going to take the Central Division; their +19 handily beats out Cleveland and Chicago.

To nobody’s surprise, Houston is dominating the AL West: not only do they have a solid +13 record, but only one other team–LAofA–is even in positive numbers, at +1.

I’ve already mentioned the Wild Card winners. The WhateverTheirNameIs gang are well out in front of the rest of the league at +16 and the White Sox narrowly squeezed past the Blue Jays, +10 to +9.

No controversy there, but more heartwarming data: the owners of MLB’s worst run differential are the Oakland Athletics. They’re clearly out of the playoff hunt at -26. Even the fact that they’re somehow at 5-7, better than half a dozen other teams invalidates my prediction.

The season ends October 3–at least, that’s the plan–and I’ll check on the results and give you my playoff guessespredictions before the Wild Card games on the fifth.

A Mixed Bag

Winter again, baseballically speaking.

And, with the election well-launched into its best-of-seven series–that’s a guess: this post was written prior to election night, so at this point I have no actual idea how many state results are going to be referred to the Supreme Court for a fiat decision–it’s time to take a look at my predictions.

As always, my goal is 70% accuracy in picking the playoff teams. Last year, I was a pitiful 40%. This year, in a season marked by weirdness, well…

In the NL, I correctly picked LA, San Diego, St. Louis, Chicago, Florida, Atlanta, and Cincinnati. My only miss was in picking Colorado instead of Milwaukee. Good start.

Over on the junior circuit, I was right with Tampa Bay, Oakland, Minnesota, Cleveland, Houston, and Toronto. Failed on LA and Kansas City; should have gone with New York and Chicago.

Overall, that’s thirteen out of sixteen: 81.25%! I believe that’s my best record yet. Amazing how much of a difference there is between a marathon and a sprint.

That said, I rather fell on my face in picking the actual winners.

I’d anointed Cleveland and San Diego as the World Series teams with the Padres winning in six games.

One team didn’t make the playoffs; the other got swept in the Division Series.

sigh

I take some small consolation in having correctly called the number of games in the Series.

And, as proof that I’m a man ahead of my times, I’ll note that I picked the Dodgers to win it all last year. I’m really going to feel weird if San Diego becomes the 2021 champion.

Assuming, of course, that there is a 2021 season. There’s a lot riding on the U.S. Series between the Donkeys and the Elephants. Don’t forget to watch Game Two of the series in the Supreme Court tomorrow!

A Heartfelt Thank You

Let us all thank the baseball gods for the Tampa Bay Rays and their survival this deep into the playoffs.

Not only do they have the coolest logo of the remaining four teams*, but by making it to the ALCS, they’ve saved us all from a hideous fate.

* Seriously. No, not the “TB” one, the so-called “Alternate”. Check out the version on their caps.

Consider the teams we’d be watching now if the Rays had dropped out of the playoffs:

  • The Atlanta Braves – Ted Turner’s legacy, the team he billed as “America’s Team” in defiance of all common sense and geographic sanity.
  • The Los Angeles Dodgers – For some reason, MLB and their media partners keep trying to promote them as everyone’s favorite (provided you don’t count anyone on the East Coast). Sure, they’ve got a legacy of winning, but how much of it is due to their willingness to throw money at their roster?
  • The New York Yankees – Speaking of throwing money at the roster…The Yankees are the reason Rule One exists. While I don’t quite hold with the average Red Sox fan, who believes Yankee Stadium should be nuked from orbit and the crater sown with salt, I do believe MLB and baseball in general would be well served if the Yankees were forcibly relocated to someplace less visible. Tazmania, perhaps, or better yet, Antarctica.
  • The Houston Astros – Admittedly, the Astros’ place on baseball’s shit list is likely to be temporary. If they manage a couple of winning seasons to show they can succeed without cheating, followed by a few losing years to establish a corporate baseline of humility, they’ll likely be redeemed in the eyes of most fans. But right now they’re the team everyone hates.

Playoffs featuring the Four Loathsomes. A championship series with no rooting interest? (Mutual Assured Destruction is, unfortunately, off the table–somebody will win the World Series this year, as all the evidence to date suggests that Games Will Be Played, even if the final out isn’t recorded until 2021.)

So, thank you Tampa Bay. A 3-0 lead over the Astros is a good start on the ALCS; I look forward to you completing the sweep tonight, or at worst, wrapping up the AL tomorrow.

And may your logo swim to victory in the World Series.

2020 Playoffs

Who would have believed a mere two months ago that we’d actually make it to the playoffs this season?

By “we” I of course primarily mean “we fans,” as only 53% of the teams made it here.

Not that I’m bitter, just because none of the teams I follow are in the anointed slightly-more-than-half.

Orioles? Missed the cut by seven games. Mariners? Five games. Mets? Three. Giants? One measly game. One more flippin’ win and they would have been in.

Not that I’m bitter.

But I do have a bit of a dilemma. Who the heck am I going to root for in the playoffs? The Rules for Rooting haven’t changed–unlike our commish, I don’t tinker with the rules for the sake of novelty–but they’re not much help this year.

As always, I won’t stoop to a violation of Rule One. So that eliminates the Yankees, Dodgers, and Braves. Given that my teams are all from either the East or West, Rule Two pretty well limits me to the Central Divisions.

They’re well represented, so you might think it would be an easy pick. The problem is that they’re too well represented.

I mean, I could go with the current Futility Leaders, the Indians, now in their seventy-first season without a World Series. But we’ve also got the Brewers, who not only have a fifty-plus year futility streak, but are also one of the two teams to make the playoffs with a losing record. (The Astros are the other; both finished at .483, one win shy of a barely respectable .500 record.)

We’ve got the Cubs. Sure, they won the World Series a couple of years ago, but they had a record-setting drought before that. Worthy of a futility hangover.

I could go on, but why bother? This is a rule-breaking and rule-rewriting year.

So I went to numbergenerator.org and got a random number between 1 and 13 (the number of teams in the playoffs, excluding the Rule One teams.)

I ranked the teams by winning percentage and picked the team that matched my number: 12.

Well, that didn’t work out too well, either. Is Number 12 Houston or Milwaukee, given their matching records? I can’t root for two teams. I mean, I could–it would only be a problem if they met in the World Series–but I’m not sure I can split my attention and have enough left to do anybody any good.

So in the spirit of random rule changes, I’m rounding twelve down and rooting for the team with the eleventh worst record. Which is also a tie, but at least there’s an official tie-breaker there; one team took second in their division and the other a Wild Card slot in the same league.

Playoffs start today (Astros vs. Twins at 11:08 Pacific Time), and I’m going to be right there rooting for the team with the second-worst record.

If you want to use the same method to pick your rooting interest, click the link above, then go to MLB’s postseason standings page to check the teams’ records.

Go Reds! Sweep the Braves right out of the playoffs!

Can I Borrow a Sand Shovel?

The Mariners continue to tease us with late season relevance.

It’s a very small tease–they’d pretty much need to win all their remaining games to make the playoffs. And that includes Tuesday night’s game, which they’re losing 6-1 as I write this.

Not going to happen. Not in 2020.

But dreaming about it is a hell of a lot better than paying attention to the way everything political is going in the wrong direction. The Republicans are getting ready to stack the Supreme Court to ensure that the nigh-inevitable challenge to November’s election results goes their way. And if you believe at least four senators are going to slaughter their political careers by blocking the coming appointment, allow me to remind you of every single vote of consequence in the last three and a half years: how many times have we heard that one or two senators were straying from the party line, only to have them vote in lockstep with their orders from above?

Even the current slowing of the COVID-19 numbers has its downside. Just in time for the Dark Side to trumpet the wonderful things they’ve done to stop that virus (that wasn’t as serious as the Democrats wanted everyone to believe) as we approach the beginning of mail-in balloting (that you shouldn’t use because your mail won’t be counted, unless you’re voting Republican).

So, yes, baseball.

The Mariners may be teasing, and the Orioles hanging on by their fingernails–not mathematically eliminated, but winning-the-lottery improbable–but the Giants are still in the running. Half a game back as I write this. That could actually happen.

Even if it doesn’t, it’s looking like there will actually be playoffs this year–assuming I didn’t just jinx it (quite likely: this is 2020, after all)–as improbable as that seemed when the season started last week.

Yes, I know it was a little earlier than that. Doesn’t feel much like it.

And I know obsessing over baseball is burying my head in bread and circuses. I even know that’s a very disturbing mixed metaphor.

But why not? I know how I’m voting. I’ll fill out my ballot as soon as it arrives. And if baseball keeps me distracted enough to prevent full-stomach ulcers until after the election, I’m good with that.

SAST 17

You Know Who has never been subtle, but even by his standards, the paired assault on the Post Office and on mail-in ballots is crude and obvious.

Fortunately, the counter move is just as obvious. To misquote Pogo, vote early and vote widely.

Fill your ballot out as soon as you get it*–you know who you’re voting for–and get it in the mail immediately. Better yet, if your state offers a way to drop off ballots in person in the days or weeks preceding Election Day (California does; I’m sure others do as well), use one. They generally have a shorter wait than actually voting, and they often keep longer hours than polling places. Best of all, they avoid the Post Office completely.

* And if it hasn’t shown up within a couple of days of the mail-out date, use whatever process your state has for dealing with lost ballots. Don’t wait around, hoping it’ll show up.

And vote in every contest on the ballot. And vote Democrat. This is not the time for a protest vote, much less a no-vote protest. It’s not the time for voting for a third party candidate. Anyone who runs as a Republican is automatically complicit with You Know Who. Defeat ’em all.

Moving on.

Watching baseball on TV doesn’t feel quite real.

It’s not the fake crowd noise–or fake crowds–though those don’t help. Nor is it the omnipresent threat of a sudden end to the season. It’s not even the universal DH or the fake baserunners in extra innings.

What it really is, is the contrast with everything going on outside the stadiums. Defined beginnings and endings. Rules known to everyone and largely accepted, however grudgingly. Even, Goddess help us, leaders–team captains, coaches, managers–who lead.

Still, I don’t let the fantastic aspects stop me from watching. Heck, I write fantasy; I can deal with a universe totally unlike the real world.

Aspirational? Sure. Achievable? Probably not–but we can dream.

And moving on again.

In a move that surprised absolutely nobody, Google announced their latest phone, going head to head with Apple’s announcement of a few new models of computers.

I’ve been trying to get excited about any of the forthcoming gadgets, but it’s touch. None of them, Apple or Google, is radically new. They’ve all got minor advancements over the previous generation, but nothing to make anyone want to rush out and buy one.

Which seems weirdly appropriate for today’s universe.

Apple is nominally targeting the Back-to-School audience, but with so many schools being virtual, there’s not much scope for the usual implied message of “be the envy of your peers”.

Google, on the other hand, seems to have announced the Pixel 4a solely because it was already developed and in production. Might as well push it out there, collect a few news stories, and prepare the way for the Pixel 5, possibly as soon as a couple of months from now.

Maybe if Microsoft ever gets around to releasing their dual-screen Android phone, we’ll have something to get excited about. Right now, though? Gadgets: boring.

2020 Foresight

If it does nothing else, this weird season has at least given us a year away from reminders that “the MLB season is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Of course, robbed of their favorite truism, broadcasters are now continually reminding each other–and us–that this season is a sprint. Can’t win ’em all.

It’s also given us a heck of a lot of complaining that the new playoff scheme will result in large numbers of teams with losing records making the playoffs.

I beg to differ.

Had this season’s rules been in effect last year, only one sub-.500 team would have made the playoffs: the Texas Rangers. That’s hardly a flood, and only mildly annoying.

I also checked to see who would have made the playoffs had the season ended at about 60 games. (I say “about” because off-days and rainouts mean that not every team has played the same number of games on any given date.)

In this case, had the season ended on June 5, no teams with losing records would have made the playoffs. Even the Rangers started off well: after sixtyish games, they were at .525.

Granted, two teams–the Athletics and the Padres–were at exactly .500, but I’d have been fine with that.

Additional food for thought for anyone who thinks adding teams to the playoffs will increase competition: of the sixteen teams that would have made the playoffs had 2019 ended after 60 games, only three would have dropped out with the full 162 game schedule. The Phillies, Rockies, and Padres all started strong, but faded later, and would have been replaced in the playoffs by the Mets, Diamondbacks, and–amusingly enough–the Nationals.

I don’t know about you, but I think if the playoff lineup is more than 80% determined a third of the way through the season, increased competition down the stretch isn’t going to have much impact.

Moving on to this season, I’m going to modify my normal prognosticatory technique. Since the season is a sprint–sorry–I’m just going to go with the run differential and won/lost records as they stood at the end of the day Tuesday and use them to predict the playoff teams and the eventual World Series champions.

For purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the full sixty game season will be played, as will all the playoff games. That’s seeming wildly optimistic, but it wouldn’t be much fun to declare the season a washout this soon.

In the NL, our playoff teams–determined by run differential, not record–are Miami, Atlanta, Chicago, St. Louis, LA, San Diego, Colorado, and Cincinnati.

Over in the AL, we’re looking at Tampa Bay, Toronto, Minnesota, Cleveland, Houston, LA, Oakland, and Kansas City.

For what it’s worth, the last team in each league has a DIFF of -1. Clearly, while run differential is indicative of victories, it’s not a one-to-one relationship. But we knew that.

Anyway, once we get into the playoffs, actual victories are more critical. In the NL, the Cubs and Padres sport identical 4-1 records. While Chicago has scored more total runs, they’ve also allowed their opponents to score more; their run ratio is a hair under 1.5. The Padres, on the other hand, have scored more than twice as many runs as their opponents. Accordingly, I’m calling the Padres the probable NL World Series representatives.

Turning to the junior circuit, the Rays and the Possibly-Soon-To-Be-Nameless-Team-From-Cleveland are also sitting at 4-1. Again looking at the run ratio, the Cleveland PSTBNs (that’s a mouthful. I’m going to call them the Postbins.) have outscored their opponents by exactly two to one. That puts them comfortably ahead of Tampa Bay and their 1.7 ratio.

Postbins versus Padres in the World Series. And won’t that set a lot of prognosticators’ teeth on edge?

The winner? Based on run ration, it would be San Diego. But 2.0 versus 2.1 is awfully close, and could easily be overcome by moderating factors such as home field advantage or even pure luck. Even allowing for the Padres having scored more runs than Cleveland (26-21), it still seems close.

Let’s look at the historical record. San Diego has made it to the World Series twice and lost both times. Cleveland’s been in the Series six times and won twice. History is on the side of the Postbins.

But. They haven’t won since 1948. And people like round numbers and multiples of five. Cleveland’s best chance for a World Series victory isn’t until the seventy-fifth anniversary of their last one. That’s 2023.

I’m calling 2020 now. Padres over Postbins four games to two.

Continuing a Theme

And, speaking of balls in the air in a somewhat less metaphorical sense…

Yes, today is Opening Day in what will–for however long it lasts–be the strangest season in MLB’s modern history.

I have to say I feel sorry for the poor folks tasked with putting together the schedule. One would have thought the best way to kick the season off with a bang would be to have everyone playing–especially given the need to squeeze 60 games into 66 calendar days. But, no. Somebody decided the way to go was with a major East Coast match and a major West Coast game.

Giants/Dodgers makes sense. A long, storied rivalry involving both ends of California. Okay, so it’s the disease center of the US right now, but what can you do?

But over at the far end of the country, the schedulers had a major dilemma. They didn’t have much choice about including the Nationals. They won the World Series last year (though, to be honest, that feels so long ago, I had to double-check to be sure I was remembering correctly). But who to pair them with?

The best choice from a rivalry perspective would be the Orioles, but nobody’s going to schedule a team that lost 108 games last year for a “big bang” opener.

Rematch of the World Series? Sorry, nope. Houston is in the AL West; the only way they’ll play against Washington this year is if they meet in the World Series again.

How about Atlanta? There are plenty of reasons to dislike them, dating back at least as far as Ted Turner’s heyday. Even if you can’t get behind rooting for the Nationals, you can root against the Braves. But given the current socio-political climate and the team’s adamant refusal to even consider a name change, that must have been too much hate for MLB’s liking in an Opening Day matchup.

So the schedule makers went with the default choice. If you don’t root for the Yankees, you passionately detest them. Unlike Atlanta’s case, though, it’s just because they’re the Yankees. It’s sanctioned hate. There’s no real rivalry, but it’ll work for MLB’s needs. And if New York is currently the national virus runner-up, well…the game is in Washington. Good enough.

Rivalries or no, virus or no, we’re finally getting what MLB insists we call “meaningful baseball”. As though games that don’t count in the standings–or, worse yet, where the players don’t get paid–are meaningless. But I digress.

It’ll be a strange season, no matter what happens. But it is a touch of the familiar, and perhaps more importantly, something we can use to set one day apart from the day before and the day after.

See you next week, when I’ll share my usual predictions for the post-season.