We’ve passed the halfway point between the last out of the World Series and the first pitch of Spring Training. This is always a dreary time in the calendar for baseball fans. Many of the marquee free agents have already signed. While a flurry of surprising trades this off-season sent all-star players to new locations, like Matt Kemp finding a new home in San Diego and the recent trade of Ben Zobrist to Oakland, we can’t reasonably expect another round of blockbuster deals. Soon, equipment managers will load trucks and buses with gear for Spring Training but, for now, we’re left to reflect on why we’ll spend another summer living and dying by a game that’s over a century old.
For me, following baseball has never been about win-loss records. I discovered the Chicago Cubs on a small color television in Lexington, Kentucky, almost thirty years ago. The cable box was always set to WGN in the morning before I went to kindergarten. I’d watch the Cartoon Express or The Bozo Show and then return home to syndicated re-runs or more cartoons while I ate an afternoon snack. When summer came around, I found my normal afternoon programming interrupted by baseball games. They captured my attention immediately.
In the mid-1980’s, I had started playing catch and hitting wiffle balls in the backyard with my father. I had to imagine the seven other players that were supposed to be positioned behind my father while he pitched the ball. I played both catcher and hitter, retrieving the balls that I couldn’t make contact with. When I first encountered real live baseball, the imaginary became real: here were 9 players on the field. The batter wore a real helmet, the kind my head would have disappeared into at my age. They used real wood bats, not the plastic instrument I swatted wiffle balls with in the backyard. I didn’t know that if I’d grown up ten years later, I wouldn’t be so fortunate. Grown-ups were arguing in Chicago over the ban on night games at Wrigley Field, and soon Cubs games would be played at far more lucrative times after my bedtime. For now, I was content to sit and watch something that I couldn’t yet wrap my head around. Sometimes the ball was hit and everyone ran. Other times, the ball was hit and runners would stay close to the base or they would run but in asynchronous timing.
One afternoon, I tuned in just in time to see something new. The pitch was thrown, the batter swung and the ball traveled so high and so far that it cleared the bleachers in left field and did not come down until it left Wrigley Field. Something wonderful had happened. I never could have imagined someone could actually hit a ball that would land in the street outside the stadium. I was hooked. I tried to tell everyone who would listen about the ball that never came back but they were either too young to care about baseball or old enough to know it didn’t matter: the Cubs were losers and one home run wouldn’t change that.
As I got older, I spent more time feeling like I knew the outcomes before the season started. The Cubs weren’t going to win it all. We would have to enjoy the fleeting moments of triumph when they presented themselves. This is something I’ve come to love about baseball as an adult: we can see the future before it happens. When the Brewers got off to a hot start in 2014, the statistically savvy fan knew it was only time before their defense allowed more runs than their hitters could produce. As the Brewers entered into freefall in the second half of the season, I turned away, gloating that I knew how this was destined to end. For a moment, the gloating skidded to a halt. On September 3rd, the Brewers scouting director, Bruce Seid, died suddenly. Sometimes baseball tragedy extends beyond the standings and we’re reminded that the game is a living, breathing organism determined by meetings and scouting trips as much as it is determined on the field. The Brewers finished the season 80-82, having allowed more runs than they created, just as I knew they would.
When Chris Johnson led all National League hitters in batting average the first several months of 2013, the statistically savvy fan knew he couldn’t continue to hit over .400 on balls in play. For a time, Chris Johnson’s fleeting success wasn’t so fleeting. After stunning pundits by hitting .388 in the month of July, his best month of the season by batting average, he entered the month of August leading the National League for the batting title. Johnson did not continue to bat .426 on balls in play the rest of the season, though. He had to settle for a second place finish in the National League batting title race. For Johnson in 2013, like the Brewers in 2014, the status quo held. He could bend math, time and destiny for a moment but the player commonly known as the throw-in in the Justin Upton trade could not establish himself among the elite players in the game.
Just as I love the moments when I can see the future, I also live for the times when players change their fate for more than a moment. Sometimes players manage to break out for good. Jose Bautista entered the 2010 season having made 600 plate appearances in a season only once in his career. He had arrived in Toronto via a waiver trade in August 2008, his 7th organization since the Pirates drafted him in 2000. The Blue Jays were just looking for someone to fill-in at third base. A “placeholder”, as these players are often called, until someone better came along. By May 31st, Bautista was leading the majors in home runs. The attentive fan could find stories about tweaks to Bautista’s swing that produced his sudden offensive surge. The attentive fan had heard these stories hundreds of times, though. Eventually the scouts would get to Bautista. They’d find a hole in his new swing and soon he’d be a utility player again. It was predestined to happen. Except, this time, the status quo didn’t hold. Bautista kept hitting home runs, kept making adjustments and, five years later, he was still among the league leaders in home runs and finished the 2014 season with an on-base percentage north of .400. The attentive fan no longer passed on a chance to see Bautista at the bat.
At this time of year, I find myself pulled between these two forces: knowing by late August the status quo will strangle the life out of fans’ hopes and dreams but hoping that some player in some batting cage a thousand miles away has has found that one thing that will make this year different. Living in Atlanta, I hear sports talk pundits looking for a sign of hope for the Braves’ upcoming season every day: maybe Nick Markakis will find his doubles stroke again. Maybe Evan Gattis will hit enough home runs to wipe out the runs he’ll allow in left field. In the community of online Cubs fans I frequent, not so long ago we hoped against hope that Brett Jackson would fix his swing and bring his strike-out rate down just enough to allow him to reach his potential. We hoped that Josh Vitters would learn to take a walk. Now a new season dawns just over the horizon and we hold hands across the miles, praying Javier Baez learns he doesn’t have to swing with every inch of his six-foot frame just to be successful. A single to right field every so often would be nice.
At Fangraphs.com, the ZiPS projections for 2015 view the Cubs as an 83-79 team. This assumes the adjustments hitters like Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo made last year will continue to carry them to all-star caliber performances. It assumes that Jake Arrieta, once viewed as a failed pitching prospect in the Orioles’ organization, can continue to dominate National League hitters as he has ever since joining the Cubs. As one of the more consistently successful projection systems available to fans, most stats-savvy fans would look at these projections, nod their head and move on. After 3 straight losing seasons, most of which I’ve spent watching minor league players instead of the big league team, 83 feels like a terrifyingly optimistic number. As Cubs fans, we look at 83 wins and see the crushing grip of the status quo moving ever closer. It might arrive April 1st or August 1st but we know it’s coming. And yet, while we know the Cubs are losers, we will hold our heads high until the inevitable takes over. In 30 years, I’ve come to love every moment of baseball, even learning to accept the inevitable crushing defeat of failed prospects and career-derailing injuries, but the hope that somewhere, somehow, a player is learning to bend destiny to his will keeps my eyes pointed to the horizon. This is what keeps me coming back for another year.Next post: Cole Hamels’ Future Value
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