This week, I spent a fair amount of time building a jury-rigged playoff model so that I could play with weird scenarios. A lot of it was silly — what if the Nationals suddenly had the true talent level of the Marlins — but it was still an enlightening exercise. Mostly, what I learned is that being ahead is really important in a playoff race, more important than playing the team you’re trailing or playing an even schedule or even being good yourself.
This isn’t some novel concept I discovered, but it’s something of which I have to constantly remind myself while watching games right now. I was on the edge of my seat yesterday watching Carlos labor to hold a one run lead. In my heart, the team was doomed if they let this one slip through their grasp. Give the Cubs this one, and they’re only three back. And then they could win Saturday, and win Sunday, and then they’d be one back and this room suddenly feels a little hot and could someone please turn on a fan and why do bad things happen to good people?
Yeah, the thing is, that’s stupid. Of course the Cubs could always win three in a row, and the Cardinals could always fall flat against Arizona or in the final series against the Cubs. Lots of things can happen, and lots of things do happen. For the most part, though, extreme things don’t happen. That’s literally what “for the most part” means — the parts that happen the most.
Let’s put it this way, because I can now put this in somewhat specific terms. If the Cardinals had won Thursday and lost yesterday, and the Brewers had won their two, the Cardinals would still be 74.8% to win the division. I can tell you with full certainty that I wouldn’t have felt 74.8% likely to win the division after that loss, though. I don’t think I’m particularly vulnerable to catastrophizing, to starting with one marginal bummer and projecting more and more bad things on top of it until I have a tower of sadness all built. Something about baseball brings it out in me, though, and I think I’m probably not alone.
It’s easy to extrapolate out bad things happening when you don’t have any control over them. Of course that jerk Anthony Rizzo is going to be up there crowding the plate, and the Cardinals batters are awful, and Kyle Schwarber will have some stupid double while the announcers call him Swabber, and Nicholas Castellanos will be credited with bringing a winning attitude to the Cubs, which is of course dumb because he came from the Tigers of all places, and the Cardinals will never score a run again. Of course it’ll happen that way. The only thing is, it mostly doesn’t.
Sometimes one team sweeps another team, and there’s nothing too wild about that. If two teams are evenly matched, one or the other will sweep 25% of three-game series. That makes it sound dire, makes it sound like of course there will be a sweep. That’s not quite right, though. In this hypothetical three-game series, the bad guys sweep 12.5% of the time, but so do the good guys. They each go 2-1 37.5% of the time, which means that 87.5% of series aren’t dramatic failures for your chosen team, even though it feels like any series can be a game-changer.
I think that there’s a good chance I feel this way because I also follow other sports. Basketball and football really do feel like they can be predetermined. My wife is a Packers fan, and there have been a few times in the last five or so years when they’ve needed a winning streak to make the playoffs. They mostly do it, because they have a good quarterback and because good football teams beat bad football teams a lot of the time. Baseball isn’t like that, though maybe it seems that way in your mind. It’s much easier for a good football team to go 3-0 than for a good baseball team to do it. Sure, baseball provides a lot more opportunities to play three games in a row, but if they each had three games? It’s not even close.
The best team in baseball this year is almost certainly the Astros. The worst team is the Marlins — that one I feel better about. If they played on a neutral site, though, the Astros would only be projected to sweep the series 40% of the time. That’s huge — the Astros are more than 75% to win each game of this hypothetical series -- but you just can’t get your odds of a win in a single game that high in baseball. There are four NFL games happening this very weekend where the favorite is more likely to win than that.
Of course, just because something isn’t likely to happen doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Even now, FanGraphs projects the Cardinals to win the Central 89.9% of the time, which means that there’s a 10.1% chance they won’t. Maybe we’re living in one of those realities, where everything is rakes and every game feels covered in spiders. Those can happen, and heck, the Cardinals covered a team in spiders as recently as 2012. It’s not impossible.
No information we can know now, though, tells us whether we’re in that unlikely scenario. You can’t look in the eyes of each player and see who’s more likely to win. You can’t tell which team will have an epic collapse and which will rise to the occasion. Want an example?
Let’s do some more body-switching. The Cubs are all of the sudden the 2019 Dodgers, 100-win juggernauts. The Cardinals are literally the Marlins — oof! The Cards are only around 38% to win a random game, let alone one of their five left against the now-Dodgers-esque Cubs. Now that the Cards are trash and the Cubs are golden, the odds St. Louis wins the division fall all the way to… 70.3%.
Maybe you’re a catastrophizer. Maybe you think that the Cardinals do turn into the Marlins when the pressure is on, and maybe you think that the Cubs turn into the Dodgers. I’m here to tell you to stop it. If you think that’s the case, if you’re chewing your fingernails off every game hoping they don’t blow it… I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe we’re in one of those 10.1% of universes where it doesn’t all pan out. Maybe we’re in the 1.6% where they don’t make the playoffs, for all I know!
But stop watching the current team and worrying if there are signs that it will happen. You won’t know. You just won’t. I flat-out guarantee you that if there was a press release that the Marlins were assuming the Cardinals’ spot in the standings and were now called the Cardinals, we’d all be certain they would manage to blow it. Even then, they’re 70% to win!
I don’t really know the right way to say this, because I can’t quite untangle my own neuroses. Rooting for a team can feel like desperately hoping to avoid the worst-case scenario, knowing that if you let your guard down your heart might be ripped out at any moment. I went to the University of Virginia — I’m no stranger to losing in preposterous ways. I’m also no stranger to just doing enough work to win, though, and that’s where the Cardinals are right now. They have 154 games of work in the books, with 8 left to go. Whatever happens from here, appreciate what’s happening right now. The Cards did enough to be up three games with eight to play. Everything that happens from here on out is just fate, a roll of the dice where we have pretty good odds. Have fun!