The Brewers lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates last night. That’s bad. The Brewers swept the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team with the best record in baseball, in a four game series earlier this week. That’s good. They’re 6 games under .500; that’s bad. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 22.8% shot at making the playoffs; considering their record, that’s pretty good. The team has been hit hard by injuries this year, which is undoubtedly bad. Most of the injuries have been to players who aren’t exactly key members of the team, i.e., aren’t very good. That’s good, sort of.
There’s a difficulty in writing about this Brewers team, and it’s one that was thrown into stark relief for me by the Mets game last night. As I’m sure you know if you’re reading this, Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in the Mets’ franchise history. I watched the last two outs on my phone, and when I saw Santana strike David Freese out swinging on a perfect 79 mph changeup, I really felt something in a way that baseball hasn’t made me feel something in a while. I could look at the emotions in the faces of the Mets fans in the stands, and somehow know exactly the sweet mixture of relief and joy they’re feeling, while simultaneously yearning to feel it too.
I sometimes feel like becoming a sports fan is to deliberately sign up for a bunch of failure so that the rare successes may feel awesome. It’s like the joke about the man hitting his head against a wall because it feels good when he stops. Every season begins with the guarantee that fans of most teams, in fact, nearly all the teams, will end the season disappointed. We sign up for this because we want highs and we want lows. We want a tale more epic than our own lives.
And so it’s aggravating that the Brewers’ season this year has been so frustratingly mediocre. I almost wish they were a truly terrible team that made bad decisions, so I had something to rant and rave about. Anger at a team is something to feel. Feeling disappointment just gets old, and that’s exactly what this team makes me feel. They’re a good team that’s getting bad breaks and underperforming. They’re a team that looks like a bad team, but as we analyze them we find that they are really a quite talented team, and realize all we can do is wait for this talent to show. We look for scapegoats like the training staff (idiotically) or Mrs. Lucroy (even more idiotically), but in the end the only one to blame is baseball, the game famously designed to break your heart. We’re frustrated when our natural desire for agency makes us feel like there must be something the team could be doing differently to turn this around, and we’re not the only ones who feel this way.
I was at Chase Field a week ago to see Zack Greinke face off against the Diamondbacks. After surrendering a couple of runs on some well placed ground balls, he proceeded to strike out the side with some nasty stuff. Good process, poor results. In the third inning, I noticed that while he had previously been hitting 94-95 on the stadium gun and making good pitches, he was now hitting 96-97 and throwing balls. The gun was hot, but it’s the differential that’s important here. He started overthrowing in response to poor results, and admitted as much after the game. He was frustrated and felt that it must be possible to will a better outcome by trying harder, and was further frustrated by learning it’s not possible. We feel this same frustration, except with even less control than Greinke has.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” I hate that quote. It’s generally attributed to Albert Einstein, although he never said it. Even if he had, it would still be completely false, for reasons any baseball fan should be able to intuitively grasp. In a game that turns on fractions of an inch and fractions of a second, sometimes the exact same pitch thrown in the exact same location results in a home run when it was a swinging strike last week. Sometimes it generates a ground ball right at an infielder when yesterday that ground ball found a hole. In spite of this falseness, the quote lives on because it feels so true. It must be the case that when we don’t like the results, the answer is to do something different. Except, with this team, it isn’t really. We’re left with the irksome madness of knowing we want the Brewers to achieve better results and the best way to do that is for them to keep doing the same thing over and over.