They say nothing is as boring as listening to someone else’s fantasy sports story, and usually they’re right, but sometimes that fantasy sports story is instructive of a larger point, and that’s what I’m going for here. You’re just going to have to buckle up and hear me out on this one, buddy.
So it’s the playoff semifinals, and I’m in a tight-as-hell matchup with a guy who has the tiebreaker on me. Mid-afternoon yesterday, the last day of the match, I’ve already lost my leads in ERA and WHIP (not a good day to start Mike Minor). But I’m still up 5-4-1 (the tied category is saves), so, you know, hanging on by the shortest hair on my ass.
I settle in with some MLB.tv to check out my players, specifically my closers. Hey, Jake McGee‘s out there with a one-run lead in the ninth! Let’s see how this goes! One out… two outs… two strikes… boomhomerunblownsaveturnthisoff
OK, deep breath. Click over to the Philly game. Papelbon‘s got a three run lead against the Marlins. Let’s watch this one. No outs… still no outs… guys on base… more guys on base… Jordany Valdespin takes like a 45 pitch at bat… boomtiegameblownsaveturnthisoff.
At this point, I realize what’s coming. My opponent has Kenley Jansen and I have Sean Doolittle in the late-afternoon West Coast games, and I text a league-mate who got knocked out last week and inform him that Jansen’s going to get a save, Doolittle’s not, my opponent will flip saves to his column and win the week 5-5 on tiebreakers, and I’m going outside to wash and vacuum my car and enjoy the outdoors now because I don’t really much want to watch it.
When I get back from washing my car, Jansen has saved the Dodger game, Doolittle was taken out of save position by the A’s tacking on too many insurance runs in the 8th, and I did indeed lose 5-5. But at least I saw it coming and reacted accordingly.
Collapses are mostly similar in nature, and one of the worst feelings as a sports fan is knowing you’re in one and knowing you’re powerless to do anything about it. If I have a bad run shooting pool with my friends or a streak of unfavorable verdicts in my courtroom, I can summon my inner arrogant bastard and say I got this on the next try. But as a fan, you’re getting thrashed around by forces of nature without any recourse.
And one of the most powerful of those forces is the collapse vortex. It starts with something annoying but harmless-seeming, and spirals out of control to the point where you know what’s coming and it’s just a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop. This year’s finish doesn’t entirely qualify because it’s just the toothpick and pickle spear on an already-established poop sandwich; I’m thinking more of 2011, where the Braves woke up on September 5 with an 8.5 game lead in the wild card race, yet spent October golfing.
Every day that month was “don’t panic, we still have a X game lead and 90+% playoff odds.” And every day was a new loss or neutral day in the standings. The odds said don’t panic, but the here-comes-the-collapse vibe said otherwise. I’m basically a rationalist about most things in life, but damned if the collapse vortex doesn’t bring out my inner witch doctor. Forget your math. This is happening.
I’m trying to make sense of the fact that fantasy baseball – a simulacrum of baseball competition, numbers on a board, roulette by way of baseball statistics – can trigger my flashbacks to the 2011 Braves, or the 2010 Iron Bowl, or the 2006 NBA Finals, or the 1996 World Series, or any of the myriad collapse vortexes I’ve been subject to as a fan of collapse-prone teams over the years. But the same logic – bad thing begets another bad thing begets all the bad things – seems like it applies. (Not the first time this has happened to me in the decade-long history of this fantasy baseball league, by the way. I’m basically its Braves.)
Maybe we’re just hard-wired to look for patterns and a bunch of independent events (like the Rays’ and Phillies’ closers blowing saves on the same day) looks like momentum because our brains make sense of the world by interpreting it this way. Or maybe actual voodoo witchiness. As a committed rationalist in most areas of life, I want to believe the former. As a Braves fan who picked up with the 1996 team, I can’t rule out the latter.
So is the collapse vortex a real thing? My fantasy baseball experience would seem to indicate that it’s just one of those mathematical oddities sometimes, a bunch of independent events that create a psychological illusion of free-fall. But real-life teams facing real-life collapses have to decide whether it’s statistical noise or a condition preventable by better management.
Back in 2011, the Braves and Red Sox both blew safe playoff bids in the last month, but the organizations’ reactions were very different. The Sox fired Terry Francona, hired Bobby Valentine, fired Valentine after he proved even worse and finished last, rebuilt the roster, hired John Farrell, and won a World Series before dropping back down to last place this year. It’s a peripatetic approach, but doubling down on bold experimentation got ‘em a chip.
The Braves value – maybe to a fault – their self-image as a stable organization, one that tinkers but doesn’t overreact, so they chalked 2011 up to chance and margins-tinkered on. But the objective fact is that this management team has been in place for four Septembers, and one-and-we’re-working-on-two of them have been horrific death spirals. That’s uncommonly bad. However you fix that, it probably doesn’t involve just getting a new hitting coach and finding a cheaper Ervin Santana replacement.
Stability in maintenance of a winning model is good. Stability for its own sake is the ol’ definition of insanity, though, and even if we don’t know what exactly causes epic collapses, we can see that continuing to run it back with the same cast of characters… that strategy at least fails to prevent them, let’s say. I get that sometimes you’re just beholden to pure rotten luck – I lived that math yesterday. But on the off chance it’s something preventable, it’s probably time for the real-life decision makers to start trying bolder strategies than “run it back and do like we always do.” Because if there is an ability to I got this your way out of an impending collapse, it’s not in Atlanta these days.