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Pinch Me … No Wait, Don’t

The physicist Leonard Mlodinow has something to say about baseball narratives. This is from The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives [1] (via this Freaknonomics post [2]):

…if one team is good enough to warrant beating another in 55% of its games, the weaker team will nevertheless win a seven-game series about four times out of 10. And if the superior team could beat its opponent, on average, two out of three times they meet, the inferior team will still win a seven-game series about once every five match-ups. There is really no way for a sports league to change this. In the lopsided 2/3-probability case, for example, you’d have to play a series consisting of at minimum the best of 23 games to determine the winner with what is called statistical significance, meaning the weaker team would be crowned champion 5 percent or less of the time. And in the case of one team’s having only a 55-45 edge, the shortest significant “world series” would be the best of 269 games, a tedious endeavor indeed!

If you’re a person who uses TL;DR unironically, well, I’m gonna guess you don’t read our blog anyway. But just in case, here’s the TL;DR for what Mlodinow is saying: The postseason is a crapshoot.

Some fans find that depressing; they feel like they may as well spend October watching the dice tumble. I get that, but I don’t agree. I find this essential randomness freeing. You get into the postseason and then you let it rip for the one to 20 extra games you’re given while your bitter rivals from the regular season hit the golf course. Every one of the 10 teams still standing after 162 games has a real chance at immortality, from the gleaming juggernaut that cruised through September to the flawed but scrappy outfit that snuck into that second wild-card spot on the final day.

If your team is the one to end its year without a final L, there’ll be a trophy and a parade and a Sports Illustrated subscription so you can get the leatherbound special issue and dopey commemoratives to snap up and a lifetime of the sweetest memories, little bits of recollection that will make you quietly tear up years from now while riding the bus or raking leaves or waiting in line at the DMV.

And if not — if the season ends with a tomorrow-denying loss, as nine of the 10 postseasons must? Well, every game past No. 162 was a free spin of the wheel, class outside, the ice-cream truck giving out samples, a company-wide holiday, an extra day of vacation due to the blizzard back home.

There’s another lesson I take from the essential randomness at work in October, though, and that’s to cock a skeptical eyebrow at whatever comes out of baseball’s collective analysis factory.

Grant Bisbee, writer of the superlative Giants site McCovey Chronicles [3], gets this perfectly in looking back [4] at the Mets-Dodgers NLDS. You should read the whole thing, because to me it’s how modern baseball writing should work — it looks at pitch diagrams and randomness instead of ginning up some Just So Story about grit and heart and blahblahblah and arglebargle. But it’s in no way cold. To the contrary, Bisbee’s take is rich and funny and steeped in the joy of baseball. Here’s the part that’s really stuck with me:

Murphy fouled off the best pitch he saw on Thursday night. He took the second-best pitch he saw. He still hit for three legs of the cycle and stole a base he had no business stealing. The Dodgers will have five months to prepare for the next season and figure out how to fix what went wrong, but how do you prepare for a magical Daniel Murphy [5]? How do you fix that?

If the Dodgers can find a way (relax — they can’t), here’s hoping they don’t tell the Cubs. Because Murphtober remains in full effect, to our delirious delight.

In Game 1 Murph’s Murphtastic doings bookended a taut duel between Matt Harvey [6] and the Cubs’ parade of terrifying young sluggers. In the bottom of the first he crushed a 1-1 cutter from Jon Lester [7] off the facing of the Pepsi Porch, sending Citi Field’s frozen fans into a frenzy; in the ninth, with Tommy La Stella [8] at the plate as the tying run, he laid out for a hot smash to his left, jerking his glove up while plowing into the turf. Ball snagged, he then bounded to his feet to hurl the ball to Lucas Duda [9] for the win [10].

In the postgame press conference, someone asked Murph if he was aware of the significance of the name “Murphy” in the Cubs’ annals of tragedy. While Harvey smiled imperiously next to him, Murph hesitated and then fessed up: “Is that the name of the goat?”

Yes. Yes it is [11].

Those who have seen the full spectrum of Murphitude know that for all his current heroics, Murph could easily be the goat once again before October ends. But as Murph kept saying in interviews — both insistently and endearingly — this isn’t all about him.

Harvey was terrific from the get-go, showing the Cubs a baffling array of change-ups, sliders and fastballs, all of which he could command early. He got some help — the Cubs scorched a number of balls right at Met defenders — but that’s part of the game too. Harvey seemed to falter in the middle innings, losing a few ticks and degrees of precision off the fastball, but the uncertainty he’d put in the Cubs’ minds helped him push through, finishing an impressive seventh and then facing two batters in the eighth before Kyle Schwarber [12] turned a baseball into a space probe and signaled that Harvey’s night should end.

An at-bat you might not have noticed came in the fourth, when Harvey went to a 2-1 count to Kris Bryant [13] with the Mets up 1-0. Bryant was sitting on a 2-1 pitch, but Harvey was able to put it on the corner. Instead of lining it up the gap or rocketing it over the fence, Bryant fouled it off — and two pitches later Harvey threw him a change-up on the inner edge of the plate, which he swung through. It was a strikeout collected in the fourth but earned in the first, when Bryant watched Harvey bedevil Dexter Fowler [14] and Schwarber with changes and sliders and then grounded out on a curveball.

There were other heroics. In the bottom of the sixth, Travis d’Arnaud [15] launched a massive home run to dead center field that caromed off the apple — something d’Arnaud admitted he’d tried and failed to do in many a batting practice. Juan Lagares [16] misplayed a ball into a game-tying double in the top of the fifth but singled in the bottom of that inning, coming home on Curtis Granderson [17]‘s single. In the seventh that duo was at it again: Lagares stole third, then beat Schwarber’s throw home for a Granderson sac fly and a critical insurance run. (Nice send by Tim Teufel [18], by the way.) Yoenis Cespedes [19] has been taking wild hacks at the plate but gunned down Starlin Castro [20] at the plate in that fifth to keep the game tied. And of course there was Jeurys Familia [21], this time only called on for four outs, the last of which was secured so memorably by Murph.

Can Murph conjure up more Murphtober magic against Jake Arrieta [22]? Well, who’s to say a man who helped defeat Clayton Kershaw [23] and Zack Greinke [24] can’t handle another ace? And it’s October. Anything can happen in October, including things that defy rational explanation.

If this is all a dream, well, please don’t pinch Murph and wake him up. Please don’t pinch any of us. Because it’s a good dream.