I first became a fanatic about baseball around the same time that the so-called statistical revolution entered the public discussion of the sport. There was something about the picture it painted of the sport as something knowable, quantifiable, and, to a far greater extent than other sports, predictable. Because of the relative ease of isolating the contributions of single players to their team’s win-loss record and the length of the season, baseball was the first venue for this new way of thinking about sport to take hold.
As a teenager who was still developmentally disposed to seeing the world exclusively in black and white, good and bad, I found a comfort in “knowing” where each player and team stood in that dichotomy. I’m not going to lie that the chip-on-the-shoulder we-know-something-you-don’t mentality that came along with that didn’t appeal to typical teenage rebelliousness because it certainly did.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple at all. Inherent in that statistically-grounded approach to the game is an acknowledgement that weird shit can happen in small samples. Any single at-bat, inning, game, month, or even season exists on a molecular enough plane that even the most statistically rigorous predictions are incorrect nearly as often as they are prescient. That’s not as comforting as the simplistic macroscopic picture I described above, but it’s where the fun of watching baseball—at least for this viewer—is found. We don’t know what will happen, so we need to tune in and find out first-hand.
When the Phillies, a 48-59 team, faced the Giants, a 61-44 team, with Zach Eflin—a prospect of only moderate pedigree—facing Madison Bumgarner—a true ace with legendary pedigree—the simplistic version of pre-game analysis was that the Phillies were sure to lose. But, in the words of former Sixers general manager Sam Hinkie:
We are all so tempted to simplify when something is hard to think about, simply to get it out of our mind by treating it as impossible.
... Looking at a player with an estimated 10% or 20% chance of being a star over the next three or four years can’t be written to zero.
...The illusion of control is an opiate, though. Nonetheless, it is annoyingly necessary to get comfortable with many grades of maybe.
In that passage, Hinkie quotes Amos Tversky, a behavioral economist whose work underlies much of Daniel Kahneman’s popular book Thinking Fast and Slow, in identifying that we compress probabilities down to “gonna happen,” “not gonna happen,” and “maybe.” This game is best viewed through those lenses, minus the “maybe,” since that’s how we experience it as fans with emotional interests in its outcome.
Pregame - Top of the First: Not Gonna Happen
As stated above, this is how we felt about this game entering with a bad Phillies team against a good Giants team and a merely fine Phillies pitcher (Eflin) against a great Giants pitcher (Bumgarner). That feeling entered a realm of greater certainty when Cesar Hernandez double clutched and botched a routine double play to allow runners at first and third with two outs.
Bottom of the First - Bottom of the Fourth: Gonna Happen
In the bottom of the first, Aaron Altherr hit a home run to right field to score Cesar Hernandez and give the Phillies a 2-0 lead without recording an out.
The bottom of the second was more of the same. Tyler Goeddel and Cesar Hernandez reached on an error and a bunt, respectively, before Aaron Altherr drove Goeddel in with a single to left field. Maikel Franco followed with a three-run home run to right field to make it 6-0.
Zach Eflin gave up a huge solo home run to Brandon Crawford in the fourth, but a 6-1 lead nearly halfway through the game seemed safe enough. After all, Eflin isn’t bad and the Phillies bullpen has enough back-end talent to not blow it.
Top of the Fifth - Top of the Eight: Not Gonna Happen
I just said that the Phillies lead was too big to fail, but Zach Eflin and the Giants proved in the fifth that that wasn’t the case at all. After recording the first two outs of the inning, the Giants loaded the bases on a singles from Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence and a walk from Buster Posey. Crawford knocked in two with a single up the middle and Brandon Belt followed with a three-run homer to right to tie the score at six.
The Phillies briefly got that lead back in the bottom half with a Franco double, off of which he came around to score on a single from Tommy Joseph. But, as clearly forecasted by “briefly,” the Giants took the lead back in the sixth against Luis Garcia when Pagan hit another Giants home run to score two and take a 8-7 lead. The Phillies tied the game in the bottom half when Franco singled in Taylor Featherston.
That 8-8 tie was followed by three scoreless half innings that felt to a fan of the 2016 Phillies as a temporary calm before a hard-to-swallow late-innings loss.
Bottom of the Eighth - End: Gonna Happen
Unlike the Phillies, the Giants were active at the trade deadline, and one of their moves was acquiring reliever Will Smith from the Brewers to sure up the late innings. In his Giants debut, the Phillies didn’t let him do that at all. After Freddy Galvis led off with a strikeout, Odubel Herrera dove into first base (bad, Odubel!) to beat out an infield single. Cesar Hernandez doubled next to put Herrera at third and Smith on the bench. Against Sergio Romo, Aaron Altherr—who was already 2-4 with a home run and three RBI—lined a single over the head of Brandon Crawford to score both Herrera and Hernandez and give the Phillies a 10-8 lead. Franco followed with a walk before Cameron Rupp put the game out of reach with a three run home run to right field.
With a five-run lead, Jeanmar Gomez came in, but didn’t make the final three outs look particularly easy. After two quick outs—Pence strikeout, Posey ground out—Gomez walked Crawford and gave up a single to Belt. He didn’t give up a run, though, as Joe Panik grounded out to third to end the game.
The 13 runs the Phillies scored tonight were a season-high for a team that has struggled the entire season to score at all. Thier 1-4 hitters of Hernandez, Altherr, Franco, and Rupp went 12-for-19 with a walk, three home runs, and 12 RBI. The rest of the lineup went 3-for-20 with two walks, one RBI, and seven strikeouts. So, good for those first four.
Tomorrow: Not Gonna Happen (for now)
Aaron Nola faces Johnny Cueto Wednesday night. Nola has been bad for nearly two months now. Since June 11th (arbitrary endpoint), Nola has a 9.82 ERA. Cueto, meanwhile, has been excellent the entire season with a 2.63 ERA and a 4.37 strikeout:walk ratio. For the time being, let’s write that win probability to zero.