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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.

Edinson Volquez.
Aaron Harang.
Bronson Arroyo.
Johnny Cueto.
Micah Owings.

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.

By Chico Harlan  |  April 9, 2009; 7:22 PM ET
 
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Next: The No. 4 and No. 5

Comments

Touche'. don't know about the others but you just held a mirror up to my face.

And all along I've been thinking, "those national baseball writers and broadcasters don't see the Nats' potential because they just aren't close enough to see what I'm seeing." Well. This would explain it, I guess. ;)

Posted by: NatsNut | April 9, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

"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."

Just out of curiousity, Chico, how many sources did you check before you reported that Belliard played seven innings yesterday?

Okay, before you guys jump all over me, which I know you will, just consider my point. Beat writer, be as cynical as you want, wax as rhapsodic as you want, fall in love with your subject or not, as is your wont. Doesn't matter. Any of those personas is okay. Even a food critic persona is okay. As long as you can say yes at the end of the day to the number one question, which is this: Did I get it right? Because if you didn't, nothing else matters.

Posted by: RickDotSalt | April 9, 2009 8:02 PM | Report abuse

Guilty. Though we fans are never as close as the beat writer, we fall into the same trap. I think it is just that we wish for the glass to be half full, not half empty. We take anything that has a hint of optimism and run with it. Thats why the fall is so hard on our psyche. I love baseball and the Nationals. Tonight though, my thoughts and prayers are with the Los Angeles Angels and the family of Nick Adenhart.

Posted by: cokedispatch | April 9, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Chico,

Personally, I think that was your best post since you've been on the beat. Excellent and spot on, not just about beat writers but, as NatsNut points out, about fans.

I have also appreciated your ability to joke on yourself much like you did today with the last question you answered in your chat.

Some people won't let you forget your mistakes but, those folks are very much the minority.

Posted by: Section505203 | April 9, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

Tonight though, my thoughts and prayers are with the Los Angeles Angels and the family of Nick Adenhart.

Posted by: cokedispatch | April 9, 2009 8:34 PM
_____________________________________________________________

Me too, cokedispatch, me too.

Posted by: Section505203 | April 9, 2009 8:38 PM | Report abuse

MASN is actually running its Nationals commercials during NBC prime time tonight. I just saw one during this new show that's running between the two new episodes of The Office. Guess they want to have more than 9000 viewers this year. I wonder, though, did Peter Angelos authorize this expenditure?

Posted by: RickDotSalt | April 9, 2009 8:54 PM | Report abuse

CHarlan: Thanks for the honesty, and an inside look on some of the thoughts of a writer assigned to a beat.

Let's face it, from our side as fans, we're insatiable - you (and others) can't possibly give us enough opines or information.
From the WaPo side, the combined writing staff / blog contributors / editors / columnists that contribute to both this blog and Baseball Insider, are all looking for "points of interest" that might draw a comment or discussion. For that, I salute all of you on the Sports Desk that contribute in some small way daily to my (and our) enjoyment of the National Pastime.

Thank You.

Posted by: BinM | April 9, 2009 8:57 PM | Report abuse

As a parent you never want to bury your child, ever so my heart goes out to the family of Nick Adenhart may his soul and all the souls of the dearly departed rest in peace, AMEN.

Posted by: dargregmag | April 9, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

great post chico

Posted by: softballgirl | April 9, 2009 9:16 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Chico for taking the time to give a heart felt answer to my question in the NJ instead of the blog. I was 2 for 2 today seeing that you parlayed my "Smoke and Mirrors" question and Mr. B gave me more then I wanted for my "Chronicles of Mis-Spoken Stan" missive. However, as a life long fan of the game and a devoted STH of this team, its just gotten so far out of hand with the Carney Act AKA as Salesman Stan. I guess it was time to just say there are lots of folks out here who just don't buy it. Perception is a mighty powerful word in your world, thats what you have to write about in Spring Training, however the reality is what just transpired over the last 72 hours that counts.

Posted by: TippyCanoe | April 9, 2009 9:37 PM | Report abuse

That was awesome Chico. I don't comment ever, but I read constantly, and I think Nats fans are lucky to have such a good writer covering this team.

To the annoying posters who won't leave him alone: If the best thing you have to fill your free time with is bashing people who are very good at their jobs, I feel very bad for you.


Posted by: Ryan15 | April 9, 2009 9:58 PM | Report abuse

Chico,
excellent job. do yourself a favor and ignore the jerks that won't let things go and keep writing pieces like this. I like the nuts and bolts and the day to day of the coverage, because I can watch a game and see what happens, or I can go to Nats.com for a recap. The role you fill, for me at least, is good writing about a topic I care deeply about. Who cares if you made a mistake about Belliard not starting? I care about pieces like this.

Posted by: jonfhoffman | April 9, 2009 10:12 PM | Report abuse

Good, good stuff. I think in those exact terms.

Posted by: corneliusmatt | April 9, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

To the annoying posters who won't leave him alone: If the best thing you have to fill your free time with is bashing people who are very good at their jobs, I feel very bad for you.

Posted by: Ryan15 | April 9, 2009 9:58 PM
____________________________________________________________

Very well said, Ryan15.

Nunof1, Spamcastin, RDS, etc. take note.

Posted by: Section505203 | April 9, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

It just registered with me that it's the Angels again. Talk about a star-crossed franchise. Donnie Moore and Lyman Bostock off the top of my head, and I think there were others. Wow.

Posted by: joebleux | April 9, 2009 10:48 PM | Report abuse

Fans of teams deal in hope. The hope of a winning season, the hope of a competitive team, the hope of just being a little better than the previous year. Beat writers have to deal in reality. The reality is that you basically cover the same story from February to October dealing with the same people - players, managers, coaches, executives - and their foibles. It is not the beat writer's job to sell tickets so fans can root, root, root on the home team or to god up players. The beat writer has to be a focused objective observer and chronicler of a season and its subplots. The job is even harder now that non-club related media don't travel on the same flights as the teams they cover unlike in the past. It's a hard, demanding and often thankless job especially now that fans crave (demand?) daily updated blog posts in addition to the dead tree output. This is not your father's Povichesque sports writing.

Posted by: leetee1955 | April 9, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

"Nunof1, Spamcastin, RDS, etc. take note.

Posted by: Section505203 "

How 'bout you take note that I'm not bashing Chico. I'm simply reminding him what the most important part of his job is, which is to get it right above all else. He's a journalist after all, and more and more he's being forced to operate without a net in that he has no editors or fact checkers behind him. Of course he's not going to be perfect, no one is. But he should be striving for that above all else. And if he does that, then he can exercise his chops as a writer in whatever way catches his fancy. Whether I or anyone else likes it or not makes no difference - as long as it's right. But if it's not right, it doesn't matter how well he writes it or whether you or I or anyone else think it's the most elegant piece ever written. It's not good journalism. When we come to this site, we come in trust that the journalists behind it will tell us the truth as best they can. The truth trumps all. If it happens to be written well, that's a nice bonus for us. But nice writing is the means, not the end. The end is to get it right and tell us the truth.

Posted by: RickDotSalt | April 9, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for the post, Chico. I appreciate an answer that is well thought out and introspective.

I will project a bit here. Is there a degree of skepticism that rises with each passing season of failed expectations? Would not beat writers be less likely to predict a good season because they are exposed to the hype year after year in the preseason? Your example of the Pittsburgh writers is a bit baffling to me in that I figure a sportswriter would be less likely fooled by the 100 percent positive spin coming out of organizations, especially ones that do not have winning records. That being said it would be interesting to get a sense of what the Tampa Bay reporters were saying this time last year.

Posted by: driley | April 9, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse

random question: does anyone know when the 20-year clock started ticking on Angelos's masn rights?

Posted by: NatsNut | April 9, 2009 11:21 PM | Report abuse

Very well said, Ryan15.

Nunof1, Spamcastin, RDS, etc. take note.

Posted by: Section505203 | April 9, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

******************************************

Don't forget his most appropriate moniker, ABM. A BM. The shoe fits. And the fool shts.

Posted by: nova_g_man | April 9, 2009 11:25 PM | Report abuse

RDS,

If that is what you call "not bashing" then I pity those close to you.

You are a pinhead and not a patriot.

Posted by: Section505203 | April 9, 2009 11:34 PM | Report abuse

What does being a patriot or not have to do with anything here? I must be a pinhead, because I sure can't figure that out. Neither can I figure out why you guys love to complain about me so, but hey, whatever floats your boat. I would think if my writing annoys you so much you could just ignore it.

Posted by: RickDotSalt | April 10, 2009 12:03 AM | Report abuse

Hey DickDotSalt, here's a truth...You are a miserable person! After reading Chico's refreshing blog I thought what A nice read! Then you had to throw your know it all, lawyer like attitude into the mix. Lighten up DBag!

Posted by: vtbill | April 10, 2009 12:11 AM | Report abuse

Just to catch up on the discussion about season tickets, try being locked into a 7-year contract for 4 presidential seats. Talk about bad timing. So even if 20% cancel their tickets, the economic collapse doesn't mean the team's not still getting paid from its most lucrative sales.

Posted by: AlexL925 | April 10, 2009 12:19 AM | Report abuse

Off topic, but Cintron and Casto both went 4-for-4 in SYR homer opener. JZimm pitched OK, into the fifth, giving up back-to-back solo homers. Tim Foli, manager in waiting, was extremely optimistic after the loss. Could that be because he knows he's ticketed for a big-league manager's job soon? Manny: tick, tick, tick...

Posted by: jdschulz50 | April 10, 2009 12:23 AM | Report abuse

"What does being a patriot or not have to do with anything here?"
____________________________________________________________

Try watching something other than MSNBC for a change. Geez, what a jackanapes.

Posted by: Section505203 | April 10, 2009 12:24 AM | Report abuse

This is a great post, and we all fall for this optimism.

I'm sure I wrote a post or two about if we signed Teix, Hernandez hits, Johnson stays healthy, Zimm has a good start and...

Thanks for a well thought out post.

Posted by: soundbloke | April 10, 2009 12:44 AM | Report abuse

Not to mention my psychotic, totally illogical and well documented love of Emilio Bonafacio...

Posted by: soundbloke | April 10, 2009 12:45 AM | Report abuse

Oh, and here are Buster Olney's thoughts on the outfield logjam:

National woes

• Lastings Milledge is a corner outfielder being asked to play center field, and after he had a couple of balls sail over his head in the Nationals' first two games, Elijah Dukes started in center Wednesday. But sadly for the Nationals, there will be no immediate solution for their glut of corner outfielders, and Manny Acta will be left to find imperfect solutions because of these circumstances:

A. Adam Dunn is being paid $10 million this year and next after signing a free-agent contract, and he is the team's best power hitter, so he's got to be in the lineup.

B. Austin Kearns had a good spring and slammed his first home run Tuesday, but with his salary at $8 million now and the club holding a $1 million buyout for a $10 million option in 2010, it seems unlikely that Kearns will have much of a future with the team. But to keep up his trade value -- which is not very high, but enough to get at least a fraction of return -- he needs to play regularly. If he doesn't play, the Nationals would effectively be flushing $9 million.

C. Nick Johnson is being paid $5.5 million this year, and the Nationals are trying to deal him; if they can, they could move Dunn to first and create some more playing time for their outfielders. But Johnson has been hurt so much that, to create any trade value, he needs to play.

D. Milledge impressed a lot of talent evaluators last year with his progress, but many agree that he is a corner outfielder. But if two of the three out of the group of Kearns, Dunn and Josh Willingham play with Milledge, then Milledge has to be the center fielder.

E. In a perfect world, the Nats would be able to play Willingham at least semi-regularly to set him up for a deal. But partly because Willingham's salary is lower than those of other veterans, getting him on the field isn't going to be as much of a priority as getting others on the field. He started Wednesday, but most of the time he'll be caught in the roster vise, unless Washington can either trade him or trade others.

F. Dukes might be the most rounded talent among the Nationals' outfielders and, without a logjam, it would make sense for him to be the center fielder. But the glut is deep, and Dukes probably is going to get buried a lot of the time.

In the end, it's a mess, and it has been left to Mike Rizzo -- who has assumed the GM duties since the departure of Jim Bowden -- and Acta to deal with a cleanup that might take a few months.

Oh, and the Nationals had a bad series in Florida.

Posted by: AlexL925 | April 10, 2009 12:56 AM | Report abuse

Frank Robinson should throw out the first pitch. Win Win and just one step in unwinding the mess that Jimbo created.

Posted by: JayBeee | April 10, 2009 7:30 AM | Report abuse

If they invited him, he would probably refuse. His beef is not with Bowden, it's with the ones who are still there.

Posted by: DCCapsFan | April 10, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

I do not remember it that way.....I thought Jimbo was his beef and the way he did it.....are you saying Stan treated him that way?

Posted by: JayBeee | April 10, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Chico - one of the best pieces you've written that I've read. Really nice.

Nats Nut - I'm pretty sure the clock started with the '05 season so 16 left including this one.

Posted by: Avar | April 10, 2009 8:16 AM | Report abuse

I'm with leetee re. fan hope vs. beat writer cynicism/skepticism (at least in this fan's corner). I don't put a lot of stock in predictions, so I'm never discouraged by them, whether from the media or fan GMs. Baseball is not a sport for those who can't maintain hope in the face of defeat, IMO. Thanks for the insights, though.

I second the poster who appreciated Chico's self-deprecating humor in the chat. That said, don't let the turkey(s) get you down. When your work is presented to the public on a daily basis, there are some who will take cheap shots (just ask some of the players about that). It says more about the critics than it does about you.

jaybee, I'd also love to see Robinson honored by the Nats. The Reds just did so, I believe. Speaking of honoring former players, statues are nice, but when will we see the real Hondo as a fixture at Nats Park? That could go a long way to help as far as PR, I would think.

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | April 10, 2009 8:30 AM | Report abuse

Also, re. the earlier BO quotes, Olney is an exception to my pot shot theory in that it's fine to take cheap shots at him any time. :-D

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | April 10, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

Bowden may have had disagreements with Frank in 2005 and 2006. So what? Every manager and GM have disagreements now and then. Lerners and Kasten take over in mid-2006, Frank gets eased out at the end of the season. Bowden wasn't the one being peppered with questions about how it was being done, Kasten was. Figure it out.

Posted by: DCCapsFan | April 10, 2009 8:33 AM | Report abuse

I go to all the trouble to craft that thoughtful post and there's a new one up.

I get no respect, I tell you...

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | April 10, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

"Speaking of honoring former players, statues are nice, but when will we see the real Hondo as a fixture at Nats Park? That could go a long way to help as far as PR, I would think."

He's there all the time already. STH lunch, statue unveiling, etc, etc. It's clear there's no bad blood between him and the Nats, they both say nice things about each other all the time. What's with everyone's fixation that he has to have an official title or a job with the Nats? He'd just be a figurehead anyway. Can't he be good PR without a title?

Posted by: DCCapsFan | April 10, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

Olney gets it right, with one exception. Milledge isn't being "asked" to play center field.

The implication of the story is that Milledge would rather play the corners but is making this sacrifice for the team. That sure isn't the way I've understood it -- he insists that center field is his real position.

Posted by: Meridian1 | April 10, 2009 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Well said Alex, but I think they are having trouble with those as well. Contracts can be voided when one side doesn't hold up there end. For example "Gourmet buffet" was included in the wording of the contract - it most certainly was not!

-----------------------

Just to catch up on the discussion about season tickets, try being locked into a 7-year contract for 4 presidential seats. Talk about bad timing. So even if 20% cancel their tickets, the economic collapse doesn't mean the team's not still getting paid from its most lucrative sales.

Posted by: AlexL925 | April 10, 2009 12:19 AM

Posted by: anyone1 | April 10, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

My head just exploded.

---

Olney gets it right....

Posted by: natsfan1a1 | April 10, 2009 11:20 AM | Report abuse

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