With apologies to Charles Dickens, it was the worst of times, it remains the worst of times, it was the age of foolishness, now the age of flibbertigibbety, it was the epoch of sabermetric disbelief, still the epoch of FIP disdain passed from the father to the son, it was the spring of hope, it is the abbreviated summer of game-by-game despair.
It feels like one continuous thread, a Cincinnati version of string theory that has remained unbroken from the moment Mat Latos trudged unheroically off the mound in the fifth inning of Game 5 nearly 8 years ago until this moment. An unbroken stream of angst and recriminations threading its way through this 60-game season, now ratcheting up because of the new math:
Disappointing Results x 2.7 = Outrage
The narrative has been set in stone since the schedule was unveiled. The Reds should handle a very bad Detroit Tigers team, and if they don’t get off to a fast start, woe is them, because, well, The 2.7.
If only that were how it works. Even bad teams play well for short stretches. Maybe the Reds failed to hit. Maybe the Tigers pitched well, too. This is the major leagues, after all. Even bad teams can have a few worthy pitchers. The well-worn shibboleth that every team wins a third of its games, loses a third, that what is done with the other third determines a team’s fate carries the distilled heft of truth. The simple analysis might be that as pitching dominates, outcomes hinge on the vagaries of the game, the bounce of a ball here, a throw there, variance swamping everything, to borrow writer Joe Sheehan’s well-worn phrase. Had one of several Joey Votto line drives gotten past a Tigers first baseman, the Reds might have won the first series, alarm bells remaining silent, and warnings not elevated to Defcon 1 after one whole week of baseball.
A heartbreaker of a game against the Cubs was lost because Wade Miley had a very bad night. He was a very good pitcher last year who slumped badly in 3 September starts, but otherwise held his own as a member of a Houston Astros rotation that was, well, spectacular. His game is location, not velocity, and he had none on this night. Now must he be banished to Siberia?
This perverted Disney version of a It’s a Small, Small World season, what I call “The 2.7,” is strangling us. Small sample size was once ridiculed as the misleading signpost it surely is. Now, it’s our drug of choice. Michael Lorenzen has been awful so far, likely a victim of a short 21-day summer camp that has robbed him of his rhythm. Manager David Bell remains an easy punching bag. We’ve always had a tendency to see managers as soothsayers, demanding they look into the seeds of time and divine which grain will grow and which will not. Now, every decision has become—in some corners of the fanbase—worthy of excommunication from the church of baseball.
Pitcher injuries have spiked, a fact writer Mark Townsend of Yahoo Sports notes, which explains the early hook manager Bell has used to protect arms that may have been rushed in the service of bringing baseball to the masses.
“After the offseason, pitchers have had three weeks worth of spring training, followed by three-plus months of waiting, and then another three-week summer camp. They were not able to consistently build up arm strength as they typically would in spring training and were often limited to simulation games and scrimmages as preparation.”
The irony is that if the season is spiraling away, it is doing so outside the chalk lines of the playing field. Should this season become tempest-tossed on its sea of troubles, it won’t be bullpen-related, but the result of a rising tide of a virus flooding our country. If the inner circle at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue cannot be kept safe from exposure to COVID-19, how can Major League Baseball in good conscience send hundreds of people into regions of the country like Florida, Texas, California and Arizona that are drowning in the sick air?
Greater cause for concern in baseball, as the #Phillies announce that a coach and clubhouse attendant have tested positive.
All activities at Citizens Bank Park canceled “until further notice.” pic.twitter.com/CKJi8WmJqG
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) July 30, 2020
And yet, Commissioner Manfred says, “play on:”
Comissioner Rob Manfred tells me “We are playing. The players need to be better, but I am not a quitter in general and there is no reason to quit now. We have had to be fluid, but it is manageable.”
— Karl Ravech (@karlravechespn) August 1, 2020
COVID-19 hasn’t just put baseball people at risk, it’s turned the game into a circus, a funhouse mirror distortion of itself. Runners dropped deus ex machina-like onto second base in extra innings. Teams sitting idle for days between games. Home teams playing in road ballparks. Seven inning doubleheaders.
For all the talk of a ‘sprint’ and each game being worth 2.7 games, my Butler math tells me a four game losing streak is the equivalent of a 10.8 game skid in a normal season.
Chew on that. #Reds
— Lance McAlister (@LanceMcAlister) July 29, 2020
The 2.7 owns us now. There’s no room for nuanced, thoughtful analysis of the losses or patience for players to find their feet, much less their bats. There’s no space for caution from the men who run baseball in the midst of a worldwide health crisis. Just the false bravado of Park Avenue suits and a double-dose of pandemic—a viral one on the field and the pandemic of fear the season is spiraling away before it has barely begun.