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weak in review

Knowing, Not-Knowing, October, And Letting Go: David Roth's Weak In Review

Baseball spends a great deal of time and effort trying to figure itself out, which is one of its charms. And then, in October, it's something else entirely.

by David Roth
Oct 7 2016, 1:37pm

Photo by David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

No sport parses itself as vigorously as baseball, and it's hard to imagine any sport that ever would. The NBA's current efficiency fetish has given us its share of decimal points and splattery Jackson Pollock graphs, although those metrics' biggest moment in the public discourse to date is Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob retroactively applying a veneer of datafied disruption to his observation that three-point shots are worth more than two-pointers. The NFL is not in the business of passing up chances to come up with new tough-sounding military-style acronyms, although the sport's institutional steakheadedness has ensured that nothing terribly interesting has been done with them yet. Baseball is different.

Baseball is built for measurement in a way that other sports are not, and it has inclined towards that sort of thing in a way that other sports are not. Scratch baseball's cornfed, country-strong self-presentation—upright and uptight and ostentatiously unhip, and prone to mythologizing all that in ways usually heard in a Sam Elliott beer commercial voiceover—and you will reveal something very different closer to the core. Inside the brains of most baseball fans there is a small talmudic scholar hard at work, hunched in passionate study over a game that's simultaneously discrete and wild. It's as much fun to study as anything else, provided studying's what you're into, but for all the chunk-style data that baseball throws off at every moment, there is finally only so much that can be done with it. This information informs or misinforms decisions by players and managers and executives, and it colors everyone else's understanding of all that, and it is meaningful for those reasons. But what all that data describes, especially at this time of year, is not necessarily what we see when we turn our eyes to the field. This is why we watch.

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The relationship between baseball and the people that care about it is, fundamentally, a chase—the game is going wherever it's going, and we don't ever really know where that is; come October, baseball is just going to do whatever it's going to do, and the only thing any of us can really do about it is come tumbling after. All that parsing, over the course of a season, amounts to an attempt at mounting a more direct and effective pursuit of something that we are cannot catch. The signal irony of October, and the best thing about it, is how it invariably brings us up short after another season spent trying to figure things out. Give a whole year to learning as much as you can learn and fitting every micro-fact into its right contextual place, by all means. It's fun, in its way, and it's part of the game. Just don't expect the postseason to honor any of that.

The baseball we've seen to this point tells us some things about the teams that have lasted into the colder weather, just in the crudest sense of who does what and how likely they are to do it. We know that the Chicago Cubs are great in some very obvious ways, that the Boston Red Sox are very good and still appealingly weird, that the Cleveland Indians are good and unlucky and poorly named, and that the San Francisco Giants are blessed in the most rational possible way. But if you've been here before, you know that most of what we know now won't matter much going forward, insofar as we don't yet know what will matter and what won't. Again, this is the fun of it. The purpose of October is to prove everything and everyone wrong, and to re-remind us of the way that the casual cruelty and random grace of the unpredictable moment rules this month.

So that's what we're working on, now, after two vicious sudden-death wild card games—a concept that's both supremely dumb and entirely undeniable in terms of what it delivers—and before everything else. It is one thing to know that Madison Bumgarner is a great pitcher coming off a great season, for instance, or that he has pitched brilliantly in previous postseasons; there is evidence of all this, and that evidence is knowable and known. But the understanding of what Bumgarner is in October begins with that evidence and then cuts the wheel hard to the left, before speeding off upside down into some notably less logical landscapes. The data gives us a detailed map of this M.C. Escher landscape, but also we are driving in the dark and the compass is spinning and oh my god look out what the hell was that in the road, I swear it looked like Bartolo Colon.

When you're so happy that you appear to be mad. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone knows that this is how October works, that it's all omens and vibes and luck and holy ghosts from here on out, but it's hard to talk about the way randomness rules the playoffs that way without sounding ... well, you've read this column to this point, so you know that I at least am incapable of talking about it without sounding like a man in a stained Paul Lo Duca shirsey drunkenly drawing a map of the universe on a cocktail napkin. Or, at any rate, without sounding like an unusually sentimental fatalist. Because baseball gives us so much to know, and because so much of fandom is devoted to attempting to know it, there's something cruel about the way that October baseball reliably defies it. It's fun, too. But the relationship, at least from a fan's perspective, is fundamentally passive. What's loose in October is not something we're going to catch. I don't know what we'd do with it if we did.

But, based on the way people talk about baseball on TV, we have some idea of how it might go. That idea, which may even have held some water before the playoffs turned into a month-long bullpen-management attritionfest, a generation or so ago, is roughly that the best teams will eventually have their way, and that the best team will win. Sometimes that even happens, and we are all appreciative and a little bored. Mostly, though, what happens is that the team that makes itself the most inevitable—which is not necessarily and increasingly invariably not the most talented team—wears down some slightly less inevitable opponent, and wins simply by being the last team not to make a mistake.

There was a time when bloated superteams smothered the postseason with thickly applied contract cheese and bottomless bowls of dingers—it wasn't nearly as long ago as it seems—but we are now in a less-predictable era of slow-burning stubbornness, with last year's Kansas City Royals the reigning champs in both the literal and figurative sense. There is less overwhelming than outlasting, now; the randomness of it all is no longer subtext. The team wearing dumb goggles and wasting champagne at the end of it all is the team that rides it all the longest. There is not yet a metric that accounts for that. This is not a knock against metrics so much as it is a nod in the direction of the essential weirdness that makes and keeps this game great, and the fact that beneath all the ritual and grim tone-policing, there is something ungovernable and insane and insanely unreliable giving us these outcomes. Even the most powerful of teams win out only by somehow subduing that chaos for four games out of seven a few times in a row.

All of which is to say that it's all too early to say. We know what we think we know, but we also we surely know by now how little that's worth. There is a wealth of accumulated data about these teams that tells us some discrete things about them, but there is a limit to all that knowledge, and there is a distance—we don't yet know how far, or if the bridge spanning the gap gets us all the way to the other side—between what we know and what the game will finally give us. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to know as much as we can; that is pretty much always a good idea and a worthwhile pursuit. But the numbers we have will not cover the distance between here and wherever we're going, and they won't necessarily make sense of how we got there when we look back at it. October baseball is finally about letting go, about saying goodbye to every reasonable reason, or at least about realizing that we are almost certainly going someplace different than where we expect to end up. We spend a whole season forgetting this, in dutiful pursuit of probability. And then, every year, we spend a giddy month being reminded of it. It happened last year, and it will happen next year more or less the same way. This is not a reason to stop looking. It is the very best reason to watch.

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