Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Counting (Wild) Cards, No Safe Bets.
The fire alarms went off in earnest about 10 days ago. The veneer went from showing a few cracks to peeling off altogether and revealing a whole lot of instability underneath. Now, with the end of the regular season at hand, the Braves, the Red Sox, and their fans, are facing a kind of potential finality that would have been inconceivable as the calender flipped into September.
I'm not nearly mathematically savvy enough to actually answer this question, but I have to pose it anyway: what are the odds? Because, seriously, I've been thinking about this, and for everything to have transpired exactly the way it has, they have to be staggeringly tiny. How unlikely was it, a month ago, that these two teams would simultaneously douse themselves in gasoline, strike the matches, and engage in some of the most mind-bending self-immolations ever witnessed in sports history? Where would the line have had to be for you to take a Vegas bet on the Sox falling apart? How about the Braves? How about both? You'd have been out of your mind to take that action, right? Granted, neither club was exactly hyper-dominant at the time, though the Sox were only a half-game back of the Yankees when this mess started. They were, however, the (presumably) unassailable Wild Cards. And they just flat-out lost it.
The reasons for these mammoth, mirrored/symmetrical tailspins are obvious. Boston's starters, even their stalwart aces, apparently can't really pitch right now. The Braves' starters (save Tim Hudson) who could actually pitch are either on the DL or over the hill. Boston's bullpen is unpredictably shaky at best and a disaster at worst. The Braves' trio of young bullpen studs have been mercilessly overworked and might very well be out of gas. Boston's bats are making a habit of going cold at the wrong times. The Braves' bats ... wait, the Braves have actual bats? Huh, you could've fooled me.
Since September 5th, the teams have posted a combined record of 13-31. That embarrassing numerical palindrome is all the more awful when you place it in the context of so many articles and radio/TV rants from right around that date. Remember the baseball media's thematic content from that window of time? The majority of it revolved around one of four commentaries:
1. Justin Verlander deserves (or at least merits consideration for) the AL MVP. Insert lots of angry, pedantic shouting here.
2. Justin Verlander does not deserve (or even merit consideration for) the AL MVP. Insert more, angry, pedantic shouting.
3. Discussion of the other potential end-of-season awards, with slightly less angry, pedantic shouting involved.
4. This is horrible. Baseball is boring. Every playoff spot is pretty much a lock. No one has anything to play for. The game could sure use some drama to keep it from becoming completely irrelevant, now football's started and all.
Basically, everyone considered the question of playoff teams so air-tightly resolved that they were not practically, but actually, begging the Baseball Gods for a race to somehow materialize. One, just one, would have been a nice gift to the writers and fans. Two drama-filled, to-the-wire stretch runs? No way it could happen, right? That would be crazy. Because in order to manufacture two climactic races out of impossibly thin air, you'd need not only two apparently steadfast, playoff-bound teams to completely fall apart, but you'd need their foils as well. Two relatively mediocre teams that suddenly start playing inspired baseball. And not just any two teams, either. Some dead-last, way-out club going on a tear in September wasn't going to matter a lick. These teams would need a legitimate chance at catching their collapsing counterparts, and they'd also need schedules that were commensurate with that aim.
Enter the heretofore lackluster Cardinals and Rays.
Everyone (except Braves and Red Sox fans) got their wish. Baseball certainly has been rather more interesting than it was just a few weeks back. During the aforementioned 13-31 cumulative stretch for the Braves and Sox, the Cards and Rays have gone a combined 29-14, nearly the inverse of their formerly superior rivals. Those win-loss totals have brought us to tonight, the last night of regular-season play. And because some ethereal force (or, you know, just random coincidence) was apparently determined that baseball fans get their wish in the most insane way possible, the Cards have been permitted to close out the season with a final six games against the woeful Cubs and the far, far beyond woeful Astros. Tampa Bay got the gift of a final six against the pitiful Blue Jays and a Yankees team that's pretty much resting everyone important in preparation for the playoffs.
So here we sit; Boston and Tampa Bay at 90-71 each, Atlanta and St. Louis at 89-72. Everything hinges on four baseball games. As I said, I have no idea how to calculate the odds of an 8.5-game Wild Card lead evaporating in less than a month. Especially not when it results in identical records with exactly one game left. I definitely can't do that, much less devise a weighted calculation that could have predicted the specific teams involved, their run differentials, and all that. Much, much less an equation that does everything above while simultaneously accounting for a second scenario that is almost exactly identical to the first one in timing and win-loss variables. All I know is that the percentage odds can't possibly be large. And the real kicker is, because of the records and the fact that none of the four teams involved are playing head-to-head tonight, the possibility of two additional one-game playoffs tomorrow is in play, which really is the cherry on the unpredictability sundae.
I don't know the math, I just know that no one saw this coming, because seeing it coming would have been like counting cards in a casino where every blackjack table uses random groups of, say, 387 cards that bear no relation whatsoever to nice, neat, complete decks with four of every card value in one suit each. In other words, damn near impossible, because the odds are laughably against any one scenario, particularly one this convoluted, successfully becoming a reality.
One of the great things about sports is that no outcome is guaranteed, no result 100% predictable. This is truer in baseball than anywhere else, because each pitch represents its own, separate set of probabilities, and there are far more pitches in a baseball game than plays in a football game or possessions in a basketball or hockey game. In a few hours, four first pitches will be thrown. The possibilities from there on out, within the confines of the game, are limitless. However those probabilities are eventually made outcomes, nothing that happens tonight could be more improbable than the events that got us here.