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Losing Narratives: A Thought Experiment

Let us imagine a scenario: after the Phillies clinch the NL East on September 17th they go on to win just three of their last eleven games. Many Phillies fans and members of the media begin to grow uneasy with this apparent lack of urgency from the team. Even though the games are meaningless, they'd still love to see the team continue to win at their previous torrid clip.

In the NLDS, the Phillies encounter the Milwaukee Brewers. In the first game, Roy Halladay delivers an uncharacteristically shaky performance, allowing five runs in seven innings. Meanwhile, the Phillies bats manage to hit a number of balls hard off of Brewers' game one starter Zack Greinke, but they all seem to find gloves and he pitches a complete game 4-hitter. Just like that, the Phillies find themselves down 1-0. 

In game two, Cliff Lee and Yovani Gallardo duel for seven innings, each holding their opponents to just two runs. Having thrown 105 pitches, Cliff Lee is sent out for the eighth. After putting two men on with no outs, Lee appears to have escaped the jam before Ryan Braun sends a 2-0 cutter into the second deck in left to put the Brewers ahead 5-2. The Phillies manage to tack on two runs in the eight against the Brewers bullpen, but the lead ultimately holds and the Brewers take a commanding 2-0 lead in the series. 

Facing elimination, Cole Hamels takes the mound and pitches a total gem. In seven shutout innings, he strikes out 11 Brewers and allows just 2 hits. Against Shawn Marcum, the Phillies offense breaks out for five runs, chasing him after four innings. Antonio Bastardo enters the game in the bottom of the eighth and surrenders two runs while getting just one out. Brad Lidge replaces Bastardo and allows an inherited runner to score, but escapes without further damage. Ryan Madson enters a 5-3 game in the bottom of the ninth and records two quick outs. Then, a Nyjer Morgan bleeder and a Ryan Braun bloop put two men on for Prince Fielder. An ill-advised 0-2 cutter from Madson is smashed damn near out of the stadium and the Brewers complete the sweep in walk-off fashion. 

I know it is horrifying to envision this scenario, but if you can, try to bear with me. Next I want you to imagine that after you have tended to the sucking chest wound you have been left with from this series, you find yourself listening to sports radio, or watching ESPN, or accidentally reading the comments on a local paper's website. 

What is the dominant narrative being used to explain the Phillies' sudden, unceremonious elimination from the playoffs?

Well, clearly they peaked too soon and, following their early clinch, had been lulled into a deep state of catatonia from which they were never quite able to emerge.

Now let us imagine an alternate scenario: after the Phillies clinch the NL East on September 17th, they win eight of their last eleven games and went rolling into the playoffs.

Once in the playoffs, the exact same thing as described above happens. Again, you tend to your wounds and the next morning you turn on the radio, or ESPN, or read the comments of a local paper's website. Now what is the narrative being trumpeted (by the same people who in the first scenario were calling for the Phillies to keep the pedal to the metal to close out the regular season) to explain the team's early departure from the playoffs?

Why, they are "chokers" of course! How else are we to make sense of the fact that this 106-win juggernaut of a team could be bounced from the playoffs so quickly? They were clearly not as good as their record suggested because they couldn't perform when it mattered! 

And this, my friends, is the trouble with narratives in sports. They are almost always post-hoc constructions that can be custom made to fit any outcome. 

But both of the above scenarios rest on the fallacious assumption that there can be any such thing as a "playoff lock". As we well know, the playoffs are a crapshoot. The better team frequently loses because over a stretch as short as a five or seven game series, bad luck can play a significant role in the outcome. To people who accept these narratives and likewise deny the basic randomness inherent to the playoffs, though, no matter how the Phillies played out their last eleven games this season and no matter how they are to lose in the playoffs, it will be due to some great failing on their part. In reality, the opposite is true: regardless of how the Phillies played their last eleven games, they would still have a strong chance of losing at some point in the playoffs.

However, it is not hard to see why such narratives appeal to some. It is far more comforting to believe that we have somehow earned all of the bad (or good) things that happen to us than it is to ascribe them to dumb luck. Indeed, the notion that there is a significant element of randomness in the universe is so scary to some that it leads them to accept much wider-reaching narratives than the ones discussed in this post. 

Like everyone else, I hope the scenario I described above doesn't come to pass. But if the Phillies do somehow lose a playoff series this year, instead of getting caught up in the blame game, wouldn't it be nice if we could just acknowledge and appreciate that the Phillies won the 162-game series?