The Proximity-Optimism Theory Of Beat Writing
Toward the end of my chat today, somebody offered up a question asking, in essence, about perception. And in particular, how people in and around the Nats clubhouse -- e.g., players, beat writers -- perceived their team's chances during those seven or eight weeks of spring training. Was all the talk of improvement just an elaborate set-up of smoke and mirrors? Was the optimism not genuine, merely a mechanical reflex of the spring training routine? Really, what did people think?
I started answering the question, then tried to re-write a few sentences, then gave up. Any reasoned answer required more time than the chat forum allowed. Plus, I've actually given a lot of thought to this exact topic. I can't quite speak for Nats players here, but I suspect their opinions about the club they play for cannot be addressed categorically. Some absolutely finish the spring convinced they will be part of a winner. Some think have reason to fear a long season, but also keep their fingers crossed for one of those all-stars-align campaigns -- and of course, the memory has easy access to recent examples. Some players, I know, ache to play for a winner, but know they're not a part of one right now.
But more to the point of this essay, there is no doubt that a majority of players, at some point in the spring, become convinced of their team's capability to win. Or maybe win. Either way. From both, optimism is born.
Now, beat writers. Here's where I have more to say, perhaps even a pet theory to deliver. Unlike players, beat writers should have little reason to ever fall for that same optimism. We're not connected as directly to the outcome of the season. We're not performing for the same purpose. We don't get a Bentley-sized bonus for advancing to the World Series. As a group, we're fairly cynical. We're paid second-guessers. Were Bill James to statistically quantify beat-writing talent, he'd probably craft some equation that measured ability to write under deadline, ability to tolerate travel, ability to procure free golf polos at press-junket events, and ability to trust nothing whatsoever. As the old saying goes, if your mother tells you she loves you, double-check it, and call another source. Suffice to say, fairy tale stories do not merge well with our hardened edges.
For that reason and that reason alone, analyzing spring optimism from a beat writer's perspective might be even more relevant. Because, yes, it exists. Much as I want to deny this, I must also acknowledge it. The evidence is almost everywhere. Year to year, beat writers overestimate their team. Same with columnists that spend large portions of February/March under the Florida sun. (Examples below.) Were you to ask every beat writer to predict his/her team's end-of-the-year record, I imagine you'd add 'em all up, and baseball would have a collective .550 winning percentage.
Only because this is the team I grew up with, following and reading every word, clinging to every shred of optimism, I'll now talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates -- and years of chronic over-estimation. The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992. Also, since 1992, the franchise has probably never entered a season with good reason to believe a winning season is within reach. And yet:
Almost every year, somebody -- a beat writer, a columnist, maybe both -- finds a way to envision a third-place finish. Or maybe a fourth-place finish with a near-respectable record. Or a fight for .500. I don't want to look like I'm picking on anybody, so I won't itemize all the examples, but this is a yearly thing, confined not just to Pittsburgh, but to every market with bad baseball. In 2000, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Bob Smizik -- a mentor of mine, and certainly not somebody who is easily impressed -- predicted that the Pirates would win 86 games. The Pirates finished 69-93. On and on it goes. In 2006, Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier predicted the Pirates to go 82-80, writing, "Every few years, a team no one expects will be any good is suddenly, inexplicably, awfully good. No one can foretell it. Maybe [Nate] McLouth will take this team over. Hit .330. Jerk 25 homers. Drive in 90. Maybe Zach Duke goes 22-7. Maybe Mike Gonzalez saves 48." The Pirates finished 67-95. In 2007, Smizik predicted a 79-83 record. The Pirates finished 68-94.
The thing is, this is all understandable -- explainable by the relationship between proximity and judgment. When you are close to a team for long enough, you invite a misleading kind of focus. Something of a Magic Eye phenomenon develops, where you look at something so closely, with such intense focus, at such close range that you actually see something new. You see the individual pieces of a team -- and not the teams they'll be competing against. As a beat writer, for instance, you spend two months writing about every little component. One day, you write about Scott Olsen, and you hear pitching coach Randy St. Claire explain how mechanical adjustments might help the lefty rediscover that lost velocity. Next day, you write about Daniel Cabrera, and you hear Manny Acta theorize how a move out of the AL East will help his performance. Next day, you write about Adam Dunn, and you hear from Barry Larkin how Dunn is a .300 hitter waiting to break loose.
All the maybes add up. You look at all the pieces individually, day after day after day. Willing or not, you trick yourself to see optimism.
A few days before this year's Nats season began, a collection of media members and team officials gave their predictions on the 2009 campaign. I don't want to publicize anybody's win totals, but the numbers ranged between 88 and 68. The majority were in the low- or mid-70s. I was the one who predicted 68, and that was only because I knowingly compensated for the exact phenomenon I'm describing.
Of course, the spring creation of optimism is baseball's greatest annual gift. Maybe it's illusory, but who cares. The optimism, though, is dependent on narrowed perspective. Only on Opening Day does everything change: Then, unlike in spring, quantifying a team's ability becomes comparative. All of a sudden, you're not just looking at what the Washington Nationals have, but what they have in relation to what the opponents have. For me, the oh-goodness moment came when I looked at the Cincinnati Reds' pitching rotation this year.
That's the rotation from a decent team in a decent division, and they have one of the brightest young pitchers in the game (Volquez), a guy who's won 16 games in two of the last three years (Harang), an innings-eating former all-star (Arroyo), a second-year strikeout pitcher who went 9-14 as a 22-year-old (Cueto), and a 26-year-old who didn't pitch well last year, but is absolutely a worth No. 5 (Owings). And yes, I'm aware that each of these guys is getting a best-brush description, but hey, each is easier to brush up than Daniel Cabrera.
So I guess this is a long way to say that optimism is there every February and March -- and it's genuine, and it's probably worthwhile. But as a result, beat writers generally are responsible for some of the very worst predictions around. By the way, maybe Daniel Cabrera will turn it around this year. I like Harang's chances better.
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