Sam Miller's Pebble Hunting column at Baseball Prospectus is one of if not my favorite series of baseball writing. Miller was at it again last week with "Spoiler: Spoiling Spoiled," a look at whether teams that are eliminated from postseason contention actually play better against teams still in the pennant race during the home stretch of the regular season. Put otherwise: is the notion of non-contenders playing spoiler a bunch of B.S.?
We crave meaning in life, and we perhaps crave meaning most lustfully when life appears meaningless. So we tell the story of the spoilers, the teams who are just playing out the string but have one final opportunity to affect history. Now, one might note that there is more than one way to screw over a pennant contender; one way is to beat them, while the other, equally effective way is to lose to their opponents. But one might not note that, too. One might prefer the story of the spoiler.
Let’s believe that story for a moment. The story of the spoiler suggests first one very basic way of looking at the sport: that incentives, not just abilities, decide who will win. Sabermetrics has a close relationship to economics, and economics loves the incentives, and yet we generally refuse to acknowledge a lot of these types of incentives. That’s not because they don’t exist or they couldn’t possibly move the needle on performance so much as they seem dwarfed by the very real incentives that always exist for big leaguers: many millions of dollars that are dependent on how well a player produces personal statistics. A beer leaguer might see his performance suffer from lack of interest when he’s trailing by 14 runs, but a big leaguer knows that every RBI counts the same toward his final statistics. If those overwhelming market-based incentives exist (generally) for all players, then we might not feel the need to look for other incentives.
But the incentives don't just belong to the would-be spoilers. As Miller points out, teams like the Pirates and Cardinals have some pretty strong extra incentives before them as well: a Central division championship, a sure chance at October glory, and whatever monetary bonuses for individual players that accompany such team feats. (I know we like to tell ourselves that ballplayers are virtuous Competitors more interested in winning a child's game than getting paid, but they are employees and their earning power playing baseball only lasts until they are in their early- or mid-30s, so the extra cash that comes with postseason success should probably be considered an incentive—even if it's merely icing on the cake of a Competitor's success.)
In his article, Miller broke down teams from 2013 and 2014 into three categories: spoilers, disinterested (because of success) teams, and concerned teams (with alive postseason hopes). Miller then ran simulations to get expected win totals for the various categories of teams. Spoilers achieved the exact expected win total that was expected. Contending teams, on the other hand, performed a bit higher than their expected win total.
So we know this: Out-of-it teams play about as well as they should be expected to even when facing teams that are trying like hell to make the playoffs. And out-of-it teams play about as well as they should be expected to even when facing teams that have absolutely nothing to play for other than keeping fresh.
What’s this tell us? It could tell us incentives are clearly at work: The teams that need to win elevate their game, and those honorable spoilers fulfill their role admirable. More likely, to my eye—though not clearly enough to say there’s proof—it tells us that the incentives just don’t matter, or don’t matter enough to matter. Does it mean they’re not real? Not necessarily. But if Mike Trout, maybe the best player we’ve ever seen, can only swing one win every 20 or so, how much do we think that better night’s sleep, that extra serious batting practice, that little bit of added focus on defense, that hard sprint out of the batter’s box can swing? Your answer before you read this article was probably "not as much as Mike Trout," and nothing we’ve found today will change your mind.
Sorry, spoilers. You're not special.
So naturally September 27 was Spoiler Saturday in the National League Central division race.
First, in Cincinnati, Ramon Santiago clubbed a game-winning grand slam in the bottom of the tenth inning to send the Pirates back to their hotel a loser and lower the Cardinals' magic number to one. So the Cards' fate was firmly in their hands. Win against the National League's worse team with their second-best starter on the hill and they would be the Central champions for the second year in a row. But the Diamondbacks decided to play the spoiler, besting the Redbirds 5-2 and delaying their division title celebration one day if not forever.
Sunday, both the Reds and Diamondbacks will have the chance to play spoiler, even if spoilers don't exist in any statistically provable sense and are merely the bogeymen of myth and lore told by Baseball Men while pushing narratives. Spoilers aren't real—or so I keep telling myself as Game 162 draws near.