Our ability to misperceive, even about matters as small and apparently manageable as baseball, is fairly spectacular. Take the Baltimore Orioles as an example.
Last year after 57 games -- a little more than one-third of the season -- the Orioles were the talk of the nation. In first place with a four-game lead, they were well over .500 at 32-25. This year the Orioles are in third place, four games behind and under .500 at 28-29.
So, the Orioles are playing worse than they did last year. Significantly worse. It's only logical.
That's also dead wrong.
The Orioles are playing the same as they did last year.
Exactly the same.
Statistically they are so close to their form of 1989 that it's almost a Xerox copy in every significant area.
First, let's take a two-paragraph detour.
In baseball, the only statistics that really matter are runs scored and runs allowed, since those go on the scoreboard. Over the course of a season an almost inflexible formula applies. Or has for 100 years. For every nine runs by which you outscore your opponents, you win one more game than .500. If you outscore your foes for the year by 90 runs, you'll win 91 games. By 180 runs, 101 games.
Of course there's variation, by a few games. That's called statistical deviation by mathematicians, luck by sportswriters and fate by players.
Last season Baltimore outscored the league, 708-686. Not much. The Orioles "should" have won 83 or 84 games. They won 87. That reflects pretty good luck or maybe good team chemistry. Or maybe it was a pure fluke, although we hate to admit it and spoil so much fun.
This year the Orioles have outscored the league by 256-241. That projects to 728-685 for the full season.
Could the numbers, both for hitting and pitching, be any closer?
On defense, last year's Orioles gave up the fewest unearned runs in baseball: 42. In 1990 they project to 43.
Baltimore's ERA last season was 4.00. This year, 3.98. Last year's Orioles hit .252 with 118 steals. This year, they are hitting only .243 and are stealing less, but they might walk 137 times more. All in all, it's a push.
So, what's wrong with the Orioles?
Last year the Orioles should -- by our age-old nine-run formula -- have won 28 of every 54 games. In fact, they won 29 of every 54. (Or 87 for the year.) This year, Baltimore ought to do exactly the same -- win 28 of every 54. In fact, Baltimore was 26-28 last Friday at the season's one-third juncture.
So, somehow, in three months, the Orioles have lost two more games than, perhaps, they should have. And three games more than they did last year. A little bad luck or bad chemistry? Or just the way the cookie crumbles?
Whatever it is, it's no big collapse. If the Orioles continue at the same level, they'll probably pick up those mysterious games in some other third of the year. In '89, for example, the Orioles had a poor middle third of the season (25-29). That's one of the charms of the long baseball season. Keep playing. Everything usually works out fairly.
What's interesting is the mountain of specious speculation that's been spent on the Orioles' "problems." Generally speaking, they have none. They are playing as they should. The fans' task is to wait and see what happens, hope the team can make basic improvement (i.e., outscore the league by more) and enjoy the game as played.
As a perfect example of our inaccurate rush to judgment, Cal Ripken has been inundated with criticism for supposedly dragging the team down by hitting worse than he did in '89. In fact, he's exactly the same. Or a hair better this year.
Last year Ripken had 21 homers, 51 extra-base hits, reached base 226 times and produced 152 runs. In 1990 Ripken projects to have 20 homers, 51 extra-base hits, reach base 242 times and produce 159 runs. Ripken's batting average (.217) is largely irrelevant. His increased walks outnumber his decreased singles by 2 to 1. For reference, Ripken's norm over the past four years has been 155 runs produced.
Last year Ripken had eight errors and the fourth-best fielding percentage in the history of shortstop play. This year he has one error and projects to break the all-time fielding record.
Go on, criticize Ripken's consecutive game streak, you no-brainers. Today Ripken will pass Everett Scott by playing in his 1,308th consecutive game. Should Ripken rest when he's not hurt? Of course not. Ripken may need a new batting coach. And he needs a legitimate cleanup man behind him. But he doesn't need a rest.
This season shortstops Barry Larkin, Ozzie Guillen, Alan Trammell, Shawon Dunston and Kurt Stillwell are batting over .300 and getting rave reviews. But only Larkin, hitting .358, has produced more runs than Ripken, 60 to 57. They're still a bunch of Punch 'n' Judys who make errors, while Ripken is a feared hitter, on a pace to draw 105 walks, who's fielding .994 and turning more double plays than any of them.
Sure, bench the bum.
Mickey Tettleton and Craig Worthington are frequently cited as having poor offensive seasons too. Just not true. They're having almost the same years they did in '89. Tettleton then: 26 homers, 65 RBI. Tettleton now: 20 homers, 85 RBI. Worthington then: 15 homers, 70 RBI. Worthington now: 14 homers, 60 RBI.
The Orioles pitching staff is in a similar situation. For every Jeff Ballard or Bob Milacki who has had a rougher season, there's been a Pete Harnisch or Dave Johnson who's done better.
As has been the case all season, the Orioles will show a fundamental improvement if Ben McDonald reaches the majors and becomes a first-rate starting pitcher. When he does, the Orioles will probably become a team that should win about 90 games a season.
From top to bottom, it would be hard to find a team that has come closer to exactly duplicating its level of play, and one assumes its level of effort, from one year to the next.
Yet last year's Orioles were America's darlings, one of the great overachieving teams in history.
This year's Orioles -- the same people, producing at the same level -- have been almost universally described as disappointments.
Those of us who have evaluated them harshly are the ones having a bad season.
STATISTICS THROUGH 57 GAMES
Earned Run Average.......3.57.....3.98