“I still think we’re in a pennant drive, not a salary drive” says Nationals Manager Davey Johnson, whose Nats were 101
2 games behind Cincinnati for the last wild-card spot Aug. 19, but trail the Reds by seven games and “just” six in the all-important loss column.
The past two seasons underlined one of baseball’s oldest rules: Don’t give up too soon. In the coming days, all these teams will face days when they’ve lost ground and think, “We’re just not going to make it.” GMs will be tempted to make a white-flag trade of a walk-year vet such as the Nats’ Dan Haren.
The late-season chase, even when it fails, is one of baseball’s pleasant bonuses. Fans in towns with successful baseball traditions know that, once you’ve endured the disappointment of falling behind, you get the free ride of sniffing a big comeback but shrugging if it doesn’t happen. Washington has had so few talented teams in 80 years that many fans don’t get what seems obvious to fans of “miracle-comeback” teams such as the 2011 Cardinals, who were 10½ games out of the wild card Aug. 25 but won the World Series, or the 2012 A’s, who went 33-13 to erase a 13-game deficit and won the division.
There’ll be a year, or for young fans several, when the Nats make up, or almost overcome, huge late-season deficits. Each time the odds will be hard against it. But when it does happen, there’s nothing nuttier.
Stats sites do the correct math to give the Nats miserable 33-to-1 odds to make the playoffs. But what simulations don’t capture is the factor that stock market models missed five years ago: The radical “fat tail” outcomes when human emotions, usually fear, distort the bell-curve of “normal” outcomes.
A Wall Street panic and a pennant-race collapse feel similar. But in baseball, they are far more frequent. In just the past two years, six teams have imploded to lose division titles or a playoff spot. It’s tempting to think the team ahead of you “only has to play .500 the rest of the way and we’re dead.” But that’s not baseball. There is no “play .500” button to push.
In ’12, the Pirates, on a 93-win pace, the Dodgers, leading the NL West, and the White Sox, leading the AL Central, had late-season collapses of 9-23, 9-17 and 12-21 to murder their seasons.
This year, the Red Sox, Rays, A’s and Reds are the teams in roughly similar spots. The Pirates are printing playoff tickets and discussing October rotation issues. But they’re just eight games ahead of Arizona in wild-card standings.
Instead of “oh-they-only-have-to-play-.500” lazy-think, plug last season’s collapses into this season’s standings and see what insane possibilities suddenly arise.
In ’11, the Red Sox (8-21) and Braves (8-18) had the ignominious slumps that wouldn’t stop until they were snuffed from the postseason on the last day of the season. Movie script: “It Happens Every September.”