On Worrying

The Phillies ended an eight-game losing streak yesterday, running over the Mets 9-4. The city of Philadelphia let out a collective sigh of relief as the Phillies may actually get to 100 wins after all. Over the course of the losing streak, the Phillies averaged just two runs per game. The offense’s collective slash line was a depressing .225/.284/.285.

At some point during the slide, around the fifth game or so, you had two parties within the Phillies fan camp: worriers and non-worriers. The worriers cited things like the team’s health, the recent lack of offense, and the bullpen struggles. The non-worriers negated those claims by referencing the small sample sizes and the fact that recent teams have won the World Series despite a mediocre finish to the regular season (e.g. the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals).

It’s in our nature to tie a narrative to what we see. In baseball, you will never read the literary equivalent of a shoulder shrug after an eight-game losing streak in late September because we perceive the games to have more importance. In 2008, the year the Phillies won a championship, they lost their sixth game in a row on June 24. They had just six more wins than losses and held on to first place by a game in the standings. But there was no panic because we don’t perceive the middle of the season to have as much importance as the beginning or end of the season.

Compare that to the 2-10 start the Boston Red Sox had to start the 2011 season. The same people who, before the season, predicted the Red Sox to become one of the greatest teams of all time were ready to write them off as dead after just 12 games. At that time, the Sox were in fifth place, five games out in the division. They were in the same spot at the end of April, only reinforcing the narrative. By the end of May, the Red Sox were back in first place where they were predicted to be all along. The narrative changed to casting the Red Sox as resilient, rather than simply playing up to their true talent level.

The Phillies have now lost eight out of their last nine games. Do you think we would be seeing nearly as much worrying if the Phillies lost four in a row, won a game, then lost another four in a row? I doubt it because the latter feels better than losing eight consecutively. As you watch the team lose again and again, you become more cognizant of their flaws. Eventually, you start looking specifically for flaws, ignoring any positives or putting the flaws in their proper perspective. This doesn’t make you stupid and irrational, as many would have you think; it just makes you human.

Half of the Phillies losses were by a margin of one or two runs. A couple extra bounces their way, whether as hitters or pitchers, and we may be talking about a completely different narrative.

Having said that, there are some unsettling trends and we do not have the luxury of waiting around for the sample size to become sufficient. Antonio Bastardo has walked eight of the last 37 batters he has faced, while posting a 6.75 ERA. Chase Utley has six hits in his last 52 at-bats against left-handed pitching (h/t Mark Simon @msimonespn). Cole Hamels has allowed ten home runs in his last nine starts after allowing just eight in his first 22 starts. Shane Victorino‘s OPS sat at .926 on September 2, but is now down to .845 (prior to yesterday afternoon’s game).

Worrying is fine. It is your right as a fan to be concerned with the well-being of your team, whether rational or irrational. Just be cognizant of the limitations of the information on which you are basing these worries, and your limitations as a human being. The Phillies still enter the playoffs as the odds-on favorite to win it all. If the Phillies don’t walk out with the trophy, it may or may not be because of these recent story lines; sometimes, a team just comes out of nowhere to steal the prize. To win it all, the Phillies need to have plenty of favorable dice rolls, regardless of the team’s talent.