The tragedy of expectations in baseball

There’s a funny thing about setting expectations for performance in sport. It’s never a matter of degrees or shades of gray. You can boil them down, twist them and turn them, but at the end of a season or career it’s as simple as yes or no. If an expectation was met, you know it.

Through six weeks of the major league Baseball season, the narrative has been dictated by whether expectations are being met. On a team level there are the feel-good stories of the Orioles and Dodgers—consensus powderpuffs—trading blows with the big boys on their schedule. Conversely there have been the disappointments. The Yankees and Red Sox juggernauts appear mortal and ripe for the picking, the Tigers aren’t invincible after all, the Phillies look old, injured and tired, the Brewers have inspired little to no confidence and the Diamondbacks are showing why their 2011 run was such a surprise.

The player disappointments have been numerous and redundant. There’s a web site that tracks the number of anonymous players who have more home runs than Albert Pujols and even greater than that list is the number of columns proclaiming why his contract, 10 years in length, is a bust 40 days into its first season. There is a movement brewing in Philadelphia to trade Roy Halladay. Will Joe Mauer ever hit for power again?

There are, of course, very encouraging and exciting expectations being met and surpassed each night. We knew Josh Hamilton and Justin Verlander were good, but their performances to this point have been superhuman. Jake Peavy looks as if he’s pitching in Petco Park again. Brandon Morrow finally appears to have harnessed his immense talent. Is this the same Josh Reddick who played in Boston?

Oh, and by the way, David Wright is hitting .415.

For all the exciting revelations which have come about thus far, it’s the disappointment we want to discuss. How are these teams, these players, with their high hopes faltering so badly? The answer is simple. We love a good tragedy.

Under Aristotle’s terms, the characters to tragedy were less important than the plot, and this is true. Failure grabs headlines, it gets page views, it is water cooler talk. The plot of a season in its greater context bears no relevance to the fact that we—assuming we have no investment in their teams, of course—want to see Pujols go another game without a home run. We want to see Halladay get touched up by a division rival. We want Mauer’s home run swings to be flyouts on the warning track.

It’s amazing how baseball, as entertainment we consume, can follow the model of a dramatic style. You see, these players are our tragic heroes. They are the supreme examples of what we’ve envisioned a ballplayer ought to be. We want greatness to come crashing down. We love the fall.

Ballplayers are loved by their fans. We see them as great in the way that someone who plays the game can be great, and we build them up as such. When greatness becomes ingrained we come to expect it, crave it, no matter how much we know age, human frailty or probability tells us they will look mortal once again. And when they do, we see that frustration—anger—and we know they know it too. Greatness doesn’t come easy—not in this game—and karma has a nasty habit of passing along the memo.

When Aristotle created his theory of tragedy he stressed the need for the context to be daunting and serious while maintaining its artistic integrity. The events are meant to make us pity the characters, fear for them, see ourselves in their plight.

The backdrop of major league baseball doesn’t get much bigger. Every so often players come around and warrant the talk of where they fit amongst the legends, if they will be enshrined with the names your parents and grandparents told you about. Loyalties and games become bigger than counting runs, they are bragging rights, a stab at greatness. When a player or team hits that echelon and comes crashing down, we feel for their struggles, we fear that they’ll never be back to where they once were.

Even in the cases of those teams or players that you hate, you want them to hit greatness once again because nobody wants to pick on the loser. It’s a lot easier to root against the New York Yankees than it is the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The high points are exhilarating and the low points are demoralizing. There’s a reason Hollywood dips into baseball for drama. It is theater on a field and it can be rated anywhere from PG to R depending on how low or high you can get. Just like a scene can pop out of a movie or a line can pop off of a script, a loss or strikeout has an impact depending on the date of the box score.

The problem with these disappointments in the middle of May is just that. We are in the middle of May. The character is secondary to the plot, and we’ve barely scratched its surface. There are plenty of great players and teams who look primed for their fall, but it is impossible to know for some time yet.

Albert Pujols can take solace in the fact that in 2009, many called CC Sabathia’s record contract with the Yankees a failure through the same period of time. Just a few months later he earned himself an ALCS MVP before capturing a World Series.

Roy Halladay can take solace in the fact that he has always had the most trouble early in a season as opposed to the tail end of it.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Joe Mauer can take solace in the fact that he seems to have finally figured out how to hit at Target Field. Now he can look for his groove on the road.

The story is far from over in this 2012 baseball season and the time we have to bask in the failures of great players is likely winding down. Just like many are sure that the Yankees and Red Sox will eventually close the gap on the Orioles, and that David Wright will come down from the .400 mark, we can be sure that the best will re-take their place at the top no matter how much enjoyment we get from their failings.

A baseball season is big. Take that step back and realize that there is much in this line to be unraveled yet.

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10 years ago

Well written.

10 years ago

I don’t know why people perpetually wonder where Mauer’s power has gone.  He never really had it.  He’s only had 3 seasons with an iso above .150; one of those was his 36 game pre-rookie year and another was .159 in 2006.  In reality, the only year he was a power hitter was 2009 so I’d say that looks like the outlier.

10 years ago

agree on mauer. similar to mark grace, but at a premium defensive position, in my mind.