On Optimism and Pessimism

The most prominent subject of conversation lately, in the wake of both of my recent articles dispelling the Phillies’ playoff chances and a pre-season quote from Baumann (“I’m not optimistic. And you shouldn’t be either.”), has been that we as a group — and perhaps stat-heads in general — are too pessimistic, that we’re ruining the fun of a potential historic comeback by the Phillies. The words optimism and pessimism, as well as hope, have been bandied about, as if stat-heads can only be pessimistic and that pessimism blocks out any possibility of hope. I tried dispelling the false choice in the comments and on Twitter, but I’d like to expand on that a bit, if you will.

twitter.com/CrashburnAlley/statuses/245523846000689152

Optimism is not inherently better than pessimism, and both are completely legitimate lenses through which we view the world. Both also have their pros and cons. Optimists can use their worldview as motivation to get through a particularly troublesome time, but they also set themselves up for a harsher fall in the event of failure. Pessimists can use their worldview to reduce their expectations thereby reducing the impact of failure. As it relates to the Phillies’ potential comeback, optimists use their positive thinking to help themselves enjoy the attempt at a comeback, while the pessimists use their negative thinking to brace themselves for a dud.

Studies have shown both optimism and pessimism to have legitimate uses. A study from The National Bureau of Economic Research in May 2005 found a statistically significant link between optimism and work ethic. On the other hand, a study published in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development found that elderly people who were pessimistic — especially about death — were less likely to fall victim to depression.

What has bothered me is the conflation of these worldviews and their connection to being able to enjoy what the Phillies have been doing and what they may be able to do in the upcoming weeks. The common theme is that those of us who recognize the statistical improbability of a comeback are unable to hope that it happens, or will be unable to enjoy it when it does. Saberists have been making predictions since time immemorial, and I can’t think of one who predicted doom-and-gloom for his rooting interest that watched with chin-on-palm and a scowl. Kyle Kendrick is a great example as he has been a Sabermetric whipping boy since 2007, but he has taken a big stride this year that has legitimized at least a portion of his success. There are no Saber-savvy Phillies fans who watched his brilliant start last night angrily, throwing empty beer bottles at the TV screen.

There is also the implication that optimism is, by default, the correct lens through which to be a sports fan. There is no one correct way to be a sports fan; it is what helps you best enjoy what it is you spend your time obsessing over. If you attend every single Phillies home game and you enjoy it, that’s great. That method of fanaticism is in no way more valid than the fan who chooses to watch the games from the comfort of his La-Z-Boy recliner. If you hate stats and you enjoy baseball better without them, that is absolutely fine. Saberists have no moral high ground in the great fan debate because they pore over spreadsheets.

What we could stand to do is to have mature conversations about our mutually-shared favorite teams and try to see the point of view from the other side. As a pessimist, I can certainly appreciate the zeal on the precipice of a historic comeback, and the optimists should be able to appreciate our muted enthusiasm in the face of staggering odds. At the casino, I can empathize with a gambler’s rush of a big run at blackjack while also refusing to play myself because I realize that I will most likely walk away with empty pockets. The pessimists aren’t trying to rain on the optimists’ parade, and optimists aren’t parading their enthusiasm in front of the jaded pessimists. It’s two different mindsets crowding the same space on the Internet as if it were a bad sitcom.

As the Phillies embark on their final 21 games, instead of fighting with each other, we should instead cozy up next to each other and watch our favorite team maybe make a run at it. We work best as a team. The pessimists act as the hand holding the balloon string, preventing the optimists from drifting into the clouds. The optimists help the pessimists loosen up their ties and have some fun. Fun we wouldn’t have nearly as much of without each other.

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55 comments

  1. LTG

    September 12, 2012 10:18 PM

    Cubs, I meant Cubs.

  2. ron grabowski

    September 13, 2012 06:09 AM

    Very thought provoking article Bill. I see that the Mets are holding back Dickey on Sunday against the Brewers on Sunday,(what a coincidence) which was listed as his scheduled spot all week on ESPN, and he is now scheduled to pitch against the Phillies on Monday.

    I wonder how sabremetrics accounts for this type of behavior ? (sic)

  3. hk

    September 13, 2012 06:24 AM

    Bill,

    The team that is playing right now is very similar in personnel to the one that had a +111 run differential in 107 games last year prior to the Pence trade, this team has had a +25 run differential in 59 games since Howard returned and has had a +35 run differential in 40 games since the team decided to go with the current roster on 7/31. However, the Cool Standings sims are heavily weighted using this year’s -6 run differential. Therefore, my question to you are:

    1. Do you think that Cool Standings methodology is the right one to use on a team like the Phillies where such significant pieces missed time earlier in the season and are all healthy now?

    2. If the Phillies were 3 behind STL and 2 behind LAD, but their run differential was +60, +90 or +120, what do you think their % chances would be?

  4. Pmonge

    September 13, 2012 08:56 AM

    that’s the thing though, sabermetrics doesn’t take into account the simple and almost as critical fact that some teams are hot and some teams are playing like shit. you see teams collapse every year. the cardinals have over a 50% chance of making the playoffs right now according to coolstandings, but they just got swept by the padres and have lost 7 of their last 10.

  5. hk

    September 13, 2012 09:26 AM

    Pmonge,

    I’m not sure that this is even a sabremetrics issue. Cool Standings is just a website that attempts to offer each team’s chances of making the playoffs. We are all welcome to determine the value in their system. I would think it is foolish to take their word as gospel. Another way to look at the issue is to see what odds Vegas is offering. I could not find any Vegas or on-line website odds on teams making the playoffs, but I did find it interesting – understanding the difference between Vegas payoff if an event occurs and the percentage chance of that event occuring – that the you can only get 7:1 on the Braves winning the NL pennant, 9:1 on the Cardinals winning the NL pennant and 10:1 on both the Phillies and Dodgers winning the NL pennant.

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