When it comes to baseball, I have a tendency to overreact. In recent years, baseball’s mainstreaming of analytical data has provided tangible evidence that counters apoplectic statements made in the heat of the moment. For many baseball observers, narratives are injudicious, the eyes betray and only the numbers reveal the absolute truth. There is going to come a time this season, maybe as early as this afternoon in Atlanta, when the Phillies screw up a game that they should have won. It’s going to happen, and when it does, there will be people like me banging away at a keyboard, writing statements like, “This pitcher/hitter/coach bbbblowwwsss.” I might be right. I might be wrong.
Antithetically, someone will watch the same events unfold with a detached cool, pointing out that “batter X” isn’t so bad, while citing his launch angle and average exit velocity, or that “pitcher X” isn’t so bad because, after all, that belt-high fastball had a spin rate of 2384 RPMs, as if that makes a tough loss easier to stomach. That person might be right. They might be wrong.
This extreme and contrasting attitude towards watching the game is the great divide between baseball fans, and each are equally annoying.
I write the above as a disclaimer. I’m aware that sometimes I overreact. I am also aware that a single occurrence, or even a small sample of single occurrences strung together, should not be used to draw wholesale conclusions about the quality of a team or individual player. I also look at advanced data, and certainly advocate that incorporation into strategical in-game and personnel decisions. And now I’m going to tell you that despite this awareness, I’m going to overreact anyway, because that’s who I am and that’s how I process the game.
Now that I have gotten that proviso out of the way, let’s get to the hyperbolized thesis of this article: The Phillies need to get out of the gate with a quick start this season. No slogging their way through a sleepy opening series in Atlanta. No more domination by a Mets team that is 25-51 against them over the past four seasons. The detached analytical thinker will tell you that the first six games account for only 3.7% of a 162-game schedule. There’s no need to view these games any differently than any other six-game sampling, but the narrative thinker will tell you they are worth far more to a young Phillies team that’s riding a wave of optimism as it enters a season with considerable expectations for the first time in a long time.
The main reason the Phillies have these expectations is because, of course, they have more talent than in years past. That’s key. But so much of what the Phillies did over the offseason was about further implementing a progressive culture and creating an environment in which its young players will thrive, evolve, and take meaningful steps forward towards reaching the varying levels of expectations placed upon them.
I wondered aloud when the Phillies hired Gabe Kapler if there was sincerity behind his words, or if it was just a hollow sales pitch. I also wondered if the Phillies were attempting to be progressive just for the sake of being progressive in order to compensate for what was for a long time the organization’s embarrassing refusal to adapt to Major League Baseball’s evolution into the information age. I don’t think it’s bullshit anymore.
It is apparent that this front office genuinely believes in its philosophy. Gabe Kapler believes in it, and despite what you may think about his tanned skin, shredded abs, strong jawline, coconut…sorry, hose me off…no matter what you think about any of that, his sincerity is as apparent as his virility. Wherever this thing goes, he’s a tone-setter and has been key in changing the outlook and feel of the Phillies ahead of this season. And that is great, but it is also part of the reason why the Phillies need a fast start to keep the feeling. The danger of Philadelphia sports is that when there is genuine hope, there is also less patience. The word “playoffs” has been increasingly paired with “Phillies” over the past month, and with that increases the potential for disappointment. While there are plenty of fans that are measured and think in more reasonable terms, we are where we are, and there are still plenty of fans that are approaching the Kapler era with skepticism. You may recall a certain football coach that came with a new-age approach that failed miserably. Don’t think for one second that many fans don’t remember the feel of those burns and doubt Kapler because of it. A fast start quells some of that doubt.
Moreover, even if you remove hypothetical assertions over culture, fan reaction, expectation and momentum, this roster’s aforementioned youth is an unproven commodity when it comes to handling the ups and downs of a Major League season. Again, this is a traditional-based line of thinking, but young players tend to be volatile in terms of performance—often because they aren’t accustomed to the spotlight, gushing praise, or harsh criticism that comes at this level. If they come out hot, grab some early wins, and play well, it provides an opportunity for this group to gain much-needed confidence and prove to themselves that the hype is real. It’s not that they can’t or won’t overcome a slow start, it’s just that self-assurance and confidence, though not quantitatively measurable, are real, and athletes who possess them often tend to perform better.
The Phillies will have to stumble, fall, and rise to varying degrees this season. Whether the highs of their ups exceed the lows of their fall will ultimately determine their success. It’s impossible to argue this point, but some will maintain a fast start for this team isn’t necessarily useful. I disagree, and that’s why if things go wrong over the first week of the season, I won’t be the calm and measured guy talking about ebb and flow, sample sizes, or any of that. Instead, I will contend that some of the narrative that’s been snobbishly brushed aside in recent years, in many cases, shouldn’t be. The eyes and the heart do not always betray. They need to start fast.