It is late April. Last season’s gauzy memories are dying and the new season struggles to be born; now is the time of half-formed impressions. Enough games have been played to dredge up old fears and to create new hopes; not enough have been played to give us a sense of whether these images will dissipate or emerge from the mist, solid and concrete. Kyle Schwarber is hitting .213/.327/.415. Nobody seems particularly worried. Aaron Nola has a 5.40 ERA. Phillies fans are fretting. Which raises a question: Why are fans so much more tolerant of Schwarber’s cold start than Nola’s?
There is a sense among Phillies fans that we have been here before. Last season, Schwarber had an even colder April, posting a batting average of .169 and an OPS of .721. May of 2022 was better, but barely: batting average .196, OPS 722. But June was stellar for him, with 12 homers and an OPS over 1. His July was his worst month of the season (OPS .681); but who remembers it now? He played great ball for the rest of the season, was named to the All-Star team, and generally made a good impression on fans by leaving deep impressions on the ball. If we paid attention to Schwarber before he became a Phillie, then we have even more evidence (take 2021, where he put up an April OPS of .619 before hammering his way into an OPS greater than 1 in three of the next four months). We’re not worried about his messy April, because we’ve seen it before. He rounded into shape after, and so we expect him to do so again. Sure, we’d rather it be sooner rather than later, but we don’t doubt much that it will happen.
With Nola, the certainty goes in the opposite direction. There is a seemingly ever-present sense among Phillies fans of waiting for the other shoe to drop with Nola, expecting every baserunner allowed to be the start of a meltdown. Whether this premonition accurately foretells the future or not, someone will ask, in the aftermath of the game, if Nola is really an ace. If we’re late enough in the season, there will be a mention of September Nola. This isn’t made from whole cloth; Nola really has had, in this season and in others, dreadful games that make one wince. But he’s also had no shortage of excellent games in his tenure; the meltdowns inspire so much disappointment among Phillies fans precisely because he’s pitched well enough often enough for us to hope for better. Despite the whispers of doom foretold in the ninth month, he pitched well as the regular season drew to a close in 2022 and threw a gem in the game that clinched a return to the playoffs for the Phillies. To make a long story short: fans talk about the dread specter of September Nola, but there’s no mention of an April Schwarber.
To some degree, the difference in position may be the story. A hitter’s struggles are an aggregate of little failures, invisible unless looking at more than the discrete events represented by each at-bat, or each game. An 0 for 4 night, taken by itself, means nothing. Only when presented as a sequence of many such nights do the hitter’s difficulties become a narrative. The struggles of a pitcher, however, are much more easily noticed: a meltdown is immediately apparent to everyone watching, requiring no context or knowledge of how he pitched the last time out, or the time before that. Baseball is broadly tolerant of failure for hitters (at least in a sense); everyone’s heard some variation of the line about a player who succeeds 3 or 4 out of 10 times being a good performer. No such policy exists for pitchers. Fans expect a majority of a pitcher’s appearances to be successes, and are not silent when they feel let down.
Image, too, may play a role. Most fans will not be able to summon up specific stats on the fly; they go by impression, and impressions are formed both by fact and things more subjective. Schwarber has a defined image, a persona, in the minds of fans that speaks for him. He exists as an incarnation of one of baseball’s classic heroic archetypes, the big lug with a powerful bat. This sort of player is fun, exciting, as easy to like as an ice cream helmet on a hot day at the park. We are perhaps more likely to forgive this sort of a player when he stumbles.
Nola, on the other hand, is somewhat more of an enigma. He does his work quietly, and that work, even when highly effective, is often harder to remember; a start in which a pitcher allows a few hits and 1 or 2 runs doesn’t stand out in memory like a 488 foot blast to right. Nothing about him is unlikeable at all, but in the absence of a showy archetype, irritations and negative impressions might stand out a bit more.
Our worries and opinions as fans, of course, ultimately mean little. They rarely impact the players at all; when they do they do so indirectly, transmuted into that vague but potentially powerful force known as pressure. The season will play out for Schwarber, Nola, and their teammates. We will see some of our expectations, both positive and negative, met fully and some dashed against the rocks of June, July, and August. For now, we watch and wait.