Monday, June 4, 2012

Infinitesimal: Baseball's Self-Protection Cliche Mechanism and the Probability of Every Pitch.

Everything about baseball is big.  Not in the sense of football's visceral immediacy or the larger-than-life swagger of basketball, and certainly not as regards television ratings, but still.  Football and hoops, though entirely different in their respective aesthetics, are predicated on a blaring-trumpets-and-furious-impact brand of excitement.  Baseball lacks such decadent fervor, but in terms of scope, no other American sport comes close.  Stacked up next to its brethren, it is a thing of hulking immenisty.  There's a half-century more of history and tradition, and nearly twice as many games per season, as in any other sport.  Where football airs like a series of 16 mini-dramas, and basketball and hockey seemingly (but not really at all) mark empty time until their lengthy second seasons begin, baseball is a sprawling construct of infinite variability.  This seems counterintuitive in the sense that baseball allows for the least improvisational freedom within its structure of any sport.  However, consider that every pitch represents a series of discreet possibilities which will affect the selection of all future pitches, possibly into the next game or month or season if you factor in injuries and pitch counts.  On the micro level, baseball is staggering in its complexity.  On the macro level, that complexity runs over the course of a 162-game chain reaction.  Baseball is the ultimate "butterfly flaps its wings and causes a rain storm" exemplar.

One of the byproducts of that hugeness is that baseball has evolved an almost limitless stream of folklore and conventional wisdom that, aside from supposedly illuminating the game, mostly help us cope with that complicated and lengthy slog without our brains turning to mush.  You could publish a War And Peace-sized tome containing nothing but baseball cliches, and you still might need a few appendices to cram in every tired phrase and tidbit.  Of that volume, there would probably be a couple of chapters devoted to not sweating a losing streak in May, that the standings don't really start to matter until after the All Star Break, and similar sentiments, of which there are legion.  These ideas exist because if we fully engaged and invested in every single pitch, at-bat, game, series, etc., we would go bonkers.  Not just fans, either.  The players and managers and broadcasters and everyone else have to tell themselves, just as we do, that those early-season losses don't matter.  A pitcher gets shelled?  Shake it off.  No big deal.  A hitter goes 0-for-26?  Take some extra BP, you'll get your swing back.  Don't worry.  Truthfully, thinking this way, in dismissive cliches, is how we prevent the dizzying spiral that would probably result if we allowed ourselves to recognize and comprehend the enormity of every pitch.  But here's the thing: every pitch counts. 

There's been a recent movement in basketball analytics decrying the notion of "clutch."  To thumbnail sketch it: two points is two points, and the bricked jumper in the second quarter is no less significant than the one at the end of the game in terms of contributing to the loss.  We could have a merry little argument about basketball "closers" and who does or does not have the intestinal fortitude to take and make those last-second shots, but from a purely numbers perspective, the no-clutch argument holds up.  Two points is two points.  You could say the exact same thing is true for baseball.  A win is a win.  And since those wins hinge entirely on what transpires from pitch to pitch, all pitches matter.

If you don't believe me, ask any Braves or Red Sox fan what sort of crime they'd be willing to commit to retroactively tack on just one more victory before game 162 last season.  If Tim Hudson walks one less batter that scores on a sac fly in a 5-4 Atlanta loss, the Braves are in the playoffs.  If David Ortiz launches one more dinger over the Green Monster in a close game, we never have to hear about Beer-and-Chicken Gate.  Or not.  Maybe it's a different guy at the plate or on the mound.  Maybe it's a game in mid-August, maybe it's Opening Day.  Baseball is governed by minutiae; it breathes and quakes in the passed balls and bloop singles, the reliever who hung a slider and the pinch hitter who connected with it.    

Better yet, ask a Cardinals fan how grateful they are for every single "W" they eked out along the ride to the World Series last year.  Taking an example at random: on April 5th, 2011, in the bottom of the 7th inning, Albert Pujols singled to left field, scoring Ryan Theriot and Colby Rasmus and giving the Cards a 3-2 lead which they held for the remainder of the game.  Any one of the pitches in any of their respective at-bats were responsible for the events leading to the win.  Also, though, it was Kyle McClellan who held the Pirates to 2 runs over 6 innings.  McClellan, incidentally, was making his first Big League career start in place of an out-for-the-season Adam Wainwright.  While there's no mistake about who the superior pitcher of the two is, it's possible that Wainwright might have gone out and had a bad outing, the Cards might have lost the game, and maybe that loss means they don't make the playoffs and stage their improbable run to the championship.  The preseason pitch that took Wainwright out of the 2011 equation may have been more significant on April 5th than any that actually got thrown in the game, and on and on down the regression analysis rabbit hole we go.  If so inclined, you could engage in this sort of retroactive what-iffing for every team, every game, and every pitch of every season.  That would make you an obsessive-psychotic-masochistic loony, but you could do it.  Baseball is the only game where you can collapse infinity down to gold dust fragments and still not distinguish anything solid.

Here in Atlanta, one of our sports talk radio hosts is a fellow named John Kincade, who is likeable and very good at his job even if he occasionally comes across as a sanctimonious, obnoxious bag of air.  (Related: Kincade is from Philadelphia.)  When the Braves went on their recent skid, callers were flooding the lines in consternation, and Kincade predictably started rattling off those don't-sweat-the-small-stuff cliches from that aforementioned fictitious baseball handbook.   

You people are panicking for no reason.  I'm not going to worry about the standings in early June.  If we can get healthy, we'll be fine.  It's a long season.  One game at a time.  Losing streaks happen.  It's no big deal.

Oh, but it is, John.  See, these losses don't seem like much cause for concern now, but if we're 3 games out of the wild card with five to play in September, they're going to be a big honking deal.  Your cavalier recitations of "accpeted" baseball philosophy are just platitudes that deny the facts.  It may indeed be a long season, but it is comprised, like every other measurable thing, of discreet units.  Road trips/home stands, series, games, innings, at -bats.  Oh yeah, and pitches.  Say what you will, but on the smallest scale, like inches in a mile, you're ultimately adding up a whole bunch of individual pitches to get to game 162.  And every pitch counts.

No comments:

Post a Comment