For years, conventional wisdom regarding the outcome of any competition was rather simple: winning is good and losing is bad.
It’s a fairly straightforward premise. Let’s try it in practice. The Eagles won the Super Bowl. It was neat. The Sixers are winning games and people seem to be enjoying it. Also neat. Conversely, the Phillies haven’t had a winning season since 2011 and that hasn’t been a very pleasurable experience, unless you double as a baseball zealot and a masochist who happens to produce thick ropes while guys like Michael Saunders failed to hit frozen ropes (I see you guys working in the comments section).
Still, conventional wisdom also allows that things change and paradigms shift. This is particularly true in sports, and thus, it should be no surprise that losing, and losing long, hard, and miserably, in many cases, has become the preferred outcome for an increasing amount of professional sports teams. ESPN.com’s Sam Miller recently explored the origins of this trend and its current impact on the overall state of baseball. In his story, one part stood out to me:
In the next few years, writers would put data to work defining the value (in team revenue, usually) of each win — and, by extension, each loss. In 2006, in Baseball Between the Numbers, Nate Silver showed that a team’s 90th win was worth six times as much as its 78th — and that, in fact, until a team surpasses 80 victories, there is almost no value in winning additional games at all. Suddenly, teams that once saw value in pushing for a .500 record and competitive (if futile) September games saw far more in high draft picks and low payroll.
In blunt terms, there’s no less value in being a fucking brutal baseball team, as opposed to, say, a mediocre one. In fact, there’s far more value in it, other than the short-term dread one feels in observing the unsightliness of the product. If this principle sounds familiar, that’s because Philadelphia sports fans just witnessed it. You may have heard of The Process, yes? Without it, Sixers fans may have gotten to watch a fringe playoff team over the past few years, but they most certainly would not get to experience the nightly firm swell the current team gives them.
There are a few ways this conversation applies to the Phillies. After taking two years too many to figure out that several of the players responsible the franchise’s most successful era were in steep decline, the organization finally figured out what everybody else seemed to know – it was time to blow it up. They went on to play 102 games below .500 from 2014-2017. They finished dead last in their division in three of those seasons and fourth in the other. The low point was reached, at least we hope, at the end of last May when they mercifully limped to the conclusion of a dismal 6-22 month. Since then, the Phillies have promoted several of the prospects they amassed while in the pit of NL East misery, and we saw flashes of hope over the second half of last season when they went 37-38 after the All-Star break.
Over the winter, the Phillies’ brass concluded that they were ready to exit what I like to call the “Let’s blow on purpose” phase and enter a “Let’s try to be good” phase. This seemingly appears to be serendipitous timing for the Phillies. As more Major League clubs than ever are waving the white flag before the season even begins – you could argue that roughly 10-12 teams are constructed to lose this season – they have capitalized on a market with fewer buyers through the reasonably-priced offseason acquisition of Carlos Santana and late spring signing of 2015 Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta. I don’t know what it means for the overall health of the game that fewer teams are scared to lose short-term, but I do know that it cannot be bad for the Phillies. If an increasing number of teams decide that there is less value in chasing mediocrity or throwing a Hail Mary to catch a second wild card as the calendar turns to July, the Phillies, with youthful talent and immense spending power, could be in position to further significantly bolster their roster and make a spirited run at the postseason.
The other advantage is a simple numbers game. In a league filled with more teams trying to lose, there should be less competition for playoffs spots. This, obviously, benefits other middle-of-the-road teams as well, but the Phillies could particularly reap the benefits in the NL East. The Nationals are very good, but they get a combined 50+ games against the pedestrian Mets, the lower-tier Braves, and a Marlins team that has rather openly established that a competitive 2018 is not on the list of organizational priorities. Compare that to, say, the Diamondbacks, who get the Dodgers in addition to the Rockies, Giants, and an improving Padres team. That’s a tougher mountain to climb and should give the Phillies an added advantage.
The Phils are an imperfect team that is far from a finished product. They are a team whose floor and ceiling appear equidistant from their current position, thanks to what will be their heavy reliance on a talented but unproven group of players, but on the eve of the 2018 season hope finally arrived on the strength of losing, good timing, and opportunity.