Dodgers in the 2nd 40

I love baseball.  One of the things I love the most about it is that it has such a long regular season.  162 games.  Almost 6 full months.

Growing up, one the most anticipated times of year for me was the April start of the baseball season, when my beloved boys in blue would take the field “for reals.”  As a kid, I would live and die on any given day depending on how the Dodgers did.  When they won, I felt like all was right in the universe.  And when they didn’t, well, to put it mildly, I was crushed.

I got in the habit of following the numbers on a daily basis.  I would actually begin most seasons by clipping out the standings and box scores, game by game, and gluing them in a special notebook I kept.  When the Dodgers hit a slump–or worse–the pain became too unbearable for me to keep up with my record keeping effort.  Even on a good season, I might make it only to mid-May, the ups and downs often being to much to cope with in a portable notebook.

Likewise, for me, the baseball season didn’t end until the Dodgers lost in the playoffs or until all mathematical possibility had been exhausted for them to make it to the postseason.  After that point, I would briefly fantasize about all the teams ahead of the Dodgers becoming impaired in horrible traveling accidents.  Once the postseason began, if the Dodgers weren’t in it, I was looking toward the next April again.

As I grew up, I began to better appreciate the rhythm of the game.  I began to realize baseball, as much as anything, is a game of momentum.  There are key times in the season when it is imperative that your team clicks on the field.  If they don’t, nothing else will really matter in the end.

This is hard for a numbers kid to grasp.  When you’re up at the top, you’re always following the number 2 or 3, almost as much as you follow your own.  When you are the number 2 or 3, you want that number 1 to lose as much as anything.  It all gives the impression that it’s all connected.  And in most sports, it probably is.  But in baseball, well…the only standings that really matter, are the ones at the end of the season.  All you got to do is win more games than the other guys and, while that only happens when you beat the other guys more than they beat you, it’s not as direct a thing as it appears.

That’s when I started to think of the baseball season in quarters rather than in halves.  162 doesn’t breakdown evenly into 4 parts, but I think of it as four groups of 40 games.  As baseball fans, we spend so much time waiting for the first 40 that it’s hard not to give it too much attention.  There are few things more satisfying than a strong start in the first 40.  (For that matter, there are few things more annoying than a weak start.) But, for almost all of us almost every season, the first 40 is still warm-up.  People are finding their groove; teams are finding their formula.  It’s like the first mile of a race: what happens here is less important than what happens later on.

Instinctively, we also pay a lot of attention to the final 40.  It is, after all, the lead in to the big show.  We have a sense of its importance because we know it is the final stretch.  But even more important than winning this sprint to the finish line is what condition you’re in at the end.  Remember, beyond it is the postseason.

And that’s where momentum comes in.  You don’t just want to win more games than the number 2 team, you want to finish the final 40 while playing well.  You want your strongest players to be playing as well as they can, all the magical things that make a winning team to be happening on a regular basis, and all the intangibles to be, well, almost tangible.

I can’t tell you how many times the Dodgers have made it to the end of the season when you know they have the cards stacked against them in the postseason, not because of who they might face but because they’re not playing in that magical zone.  When your team is there?  Well, no matter how good the competition is on paper, they better get out the way.

This momentum thing is important in the rest of the season too.  For me–and this is my childhood brain talking now–the second most critical time for momentum is in the 2nd 40.  Around mid-May up until the All-Star break, when the Dodgers play like champs, it usually has meant a great season.  I can’t think of a time they have done well in the postseason when they didn’t turn in a solid May and June.

Baseball is a long season.  Any team in a season that long is going to have its ups and downs.  The trick to becoming champs is for those ups to be at just the right times so that they expand on themselves rather than implode.

I’m feeling good this season, wishing I had a notebook and a glue stick lying around.  But I also know it’s a long time until July.

7 thoughts on “Dodgers in the 2nd 40

  1. I see two things going on here. There is the narrative of a season (or, for that matter, a history of seasons). And there is the undeniable fact of the games that are played. Without a narrative, I don’t know that baseball would have such a hold on its fans. It’s like a soap opera with ball and bat. Our love of the narrative is what makes us love fast starts and great finishes. It’s what makes us look for any sign of momentum, forward or backward. It’s what connects this day to the next, and to the one before. It lends itself to the romance of baseball, and it is, I think, the main reason we can happily spend six months with the game.

    And yes, some of the rhythm of the game is inherent in the sport. But much of it arises from our desire for narrative. Some things make better stories than others, so, for instance, a Dodger-Giant game matters more because of the history between the two clubs, and the ways that history fits into the narrative.

    But … and here I become the spoilsport … on a concrete level, stuff like rhythms and momentum are largely meaningless. The only thing that matters is that you win enough games to continue playing into the post-season. An unnoticed win against a last-place team on a sparsely-attended Thursday night in mid-July is just as important as a win on the last day of the season that pushes your team into the playoffs. It lacks drama, it lacks narrative, it lacks rhythm, it lacks any feeling of momentum. But if your team had lost that game back in July, your game in September might not matter at all.

    This is why, when I’m looking at teams besides my own favorite, I enjoy a good narrative, but when it comes to the Giants, all I care about is that they win as many games as they can. The narrative, wherein the Giants have never won since moving to California, certainly drives my desire to see them succeed before I die. But what matters more than anything is games won, no matter when they come on the schedule. This lacks romance, but it’s true nonetheless.

  2. When it comes down to it, these “romantic” things are the “concrete level.” I don’t disagree the point, how could I, that it matters to win the most games in your division at the end of the season. But, what comes next? The concrete fact is that the best teams on the measurable levels DO NOT ALWAYS WIN! The best record in baseball doesn’t = the World Series Championship, and the best team statistically on paper doesn’t always win either.

    What separates the winners from the rest in the end (and there are exceptions, of course) is almost always something more. A team has to play better than the sum of its parts. They don’t have to like each other, but on the field they have to move like an organic whole, a team. The strengths have to overshadow the weaknesses. Then you end up making the lucky breaks for yourself.

    For the Dodgers, momentum around May and June has always translated into the postseason, even when they play worse in the second half. But they’ve never won a World Series when they didn’t also match it in the final 40 (or quarter in 81).

    Brother, it is romance! Romance and science!

  3. What you seem to be saying is if the Dodgers win lots of games in May and June, that gives them a good chance at the post-season. I agree. But it has nothing to do with momentum, it has to do with putting numbers in the win column in those months. If the Dodgers win more games in May and June, they’ll be at or near the top of the standings come October, or at least, they’ll be closer than if they’d lost those games.

    The last time the Dodgers won the World Series, in 1988, they did indeed have their best month in June, but that came after their worst month, which was May. In those two months, they went 31-24, a .564 WPct. The rest of the year they went 63-43, a .594 WPct. They played better in April, July-October than they did in May-June. They didn’t make the playoffs because they had momentum in late spring … they made the playoffs because they had Hershiser, Leary, Belcher and a great bullpen. They weren’t better than the sum of their parts … they were better than the other teams in the West. They got off to a great start last year, and it paid off when they won the West by three games. But they didn’t win because of some magical May/June, they won because each win counted in the final standings, and they had a lot of very good hitters and very good pitchers to help them win those games.

    The World Series is a 7-game competition. Probability tells us that the better team will win more of those than they’ll lose, but the difference isn’t that big, because 7 games isn’t very many. But 162 games is usually sufficient to sort out the best teams from the rest. So I’ll agree the “best” team doesn’t always win the Series, but that’s not about romance or team spirit or organic wholes, it’s about probability theory. The best teams make it to the post-season (allowing for the vagaries of the divisional and wild-card structure). After that, it’s much more of a crapshoot.

    This year’s Giants once again have a terrible offense and great starting pitching. If they make the post-season, they might beat “better” teams because they can trot out Lincecum/Cain/Pick-em over and over. But in all likelihood, they won’t get the chance, because over 162 games, the ineptitude of their offense will cost them their chance to play in October.

  4. I love that you’re a numbers man.

    88 is a great example. Not only did they go into the break with momentum but they topped it in the back quarter of the season. They won the league and series because of almost magical events from Mickey Hatcher and crew as much as Gibson and Orel. They had a crap May (a Dodger tradition) but they battled out of the month well.

    Versus last year, when they sputtered into the fall after a solid 2nd 40. A group has only so long to become a unit, late May is about as late as you can wait. But it means little if it doesn’t get you through the dog days.

    No, they don’t win because of this, but without this they usually can’t. In those crunch times this is what makes players play their best seasons, post their best numbers, or even do things that defy the probabilities suggested by their record.

    We may be potato/spud on some if this but I see the bigger split too. Such a game that allows for so many ways to love it!

  5. You’ve gone from ” I can’t think of a time they have done well in the postseason when they didn’t turn in a solid May and June” to “a crap May is a Dodger tradition.”

    I guess my biggest problem with this is that we’re talking about baseball, the most individual of team sports. Basketball teams need to work together on the court … even Kobe can’t do it all by himself. A soccer team that doesn’t perform as an integrated unit is easily picked apart. But there is nothing similar in baseball, where the primary match-up is between one pitcher and one batter. It barely matters if the left fielder and the second baseman don’t like each other, don’t come together as a unit. If their team goes on a ten-game winning streak, they’ll all be happy. I’m not saying ballplayers don’t deserve to have a congenial work environment, but I don’t think it’s as important in terms of results as having good players. Bonds and Kent hated each other so much, Barry strangled Kent in the dugout right in front of the cameras. But now that his career is over, what Kent remembers is that he won an MVP with Barry’s .440 OBP in front of him in the lineup, that the only time he got to the World Series was with Bonds and the Giants.

    Of course you are right, some people are better about delivering in “crunch time.” But we’re talking about a very select group of people, the 750 best baseball players in the world. My guess is, the guys who can’t handle “crunch time” have been weeded out long before they make the majors.

    As for “crunch time,” I believe that falls more under the category of romantic narrative. Gibson’s home run off of the Eck is one of the great moments of baseball history. The time, the place, the participants, the build up, Gibson’s injury … as they say, you couldn’t write a better script, and Gibson delivered. No fan is immune to that story, even me, who can’t bear to watch the replays because I hated it when it happened. I’d be a fool to argue that Gibson’s home run was of minor importance.

    But in terms of winning a World Series game, it was barely more important than Hatcher’s two-run homer in the first inning. People don’t remember Hatcher, in part because Canseco hit a grand slam the next inning, but mostly, of course, because of Gibson’s moment. But without Hatcher’s homer, Gibson never even bats. Yet no one assigns a mystical tag of “Mr. Crunch Time” to Mickey Hatcher, because his home run is far less interesting as narrative.

    Here’s a narrative that usually gets left out, that has always fascinated me. Dennis Eckersley was my favorite player in those days, even though I’m a Giants fan. Seeing the hated Dodgers beat the Eck broke my heart. But what stuck with me as the next season unfolded was what happened just before Gibson’s AB: with two outs, Eck walked Mike Davis. As you know, Eck had great control throughout his career, and 1988 was no different, so when he walked Davis, it was quite unusual. And in 1989, it was as if what drove Eck wasn’t the desire to bounce back from Gibson’s homer, but to make sure he didn’t walk anyone who would be on base when a homer arrived. In ’89, Eck gave up home runs a bit more often than he had the year before. But he only walked three batters the entire season. Three. And in 1990, throwing about 50% more innings, he gave up only three unintentional walks all season. In 130 innings over the two seasons after he walked Mike Davis, Eck walked a grand total of 7 batters, one intentionally. I’ve never seen him say anything about this in interviews, but I can’t help but create a narrative here where Eck watches Gibson’s home run sail over the fence and thinks to himself, “Damn, I never should have walked Davis.”

  6. Perhaps I should have said: “If you’re only going to look at a self-contained month, then May tends to be crap for the Dodgers.” What I am looking at is the 2nd 40, the 2nd quarter of the season, May into and through June. To me, this is a period where a team needs to come together and produce as a team. That isn’t just about wins–as you point out, they need to do that all along. This is about something else.

    And I agree about Gibson and Hatcher. But both of those were only barely more important than 1000 things the supporting cast did that summer and fall–hits, catches, important outs. If you focus on the raw stats of runs and such, you lose focus on the elements of the game that don’t get measured.

    What I’m talking about is how they win when they win. Sometimes you get the breaks and sometimes you don’t, but sometimes you can make them go your way when everybody is playing at the best they can possibly play at that given moment and are moving in unison with one another. What good is a killer thrown from left field to home plate if the catcher is out of position? What good is a slick pick up at short stop for a double play when the second basemen misses the throw to first? These talents and their products are happening in relation to one another, they are interconnected. Baseball just isn’t about home runs (which, when you think about what the first three spots in the lineup do for a power hitter, aren’t all that individual either).

    As I said above, this isn’t about them getting along on an interpersonal level, but in a professional one as evidenced on the field. I suppose it might be easier when you like the people you play with, but lord knows there’s enough examples of that not happening. And while baseball might seem like it is an individual sport–it certainly is in moments–it isn’t intrinsically individual. That might be where we differ. I see it very much as a team sport, and I see success as dependent on the ability of a group of individuals to begin to see and feel that, as well as act on it. Of course, that is always best when it comes in the form of wins.

    In my lifetime, the Dodgers have made it to the postseason 13 times, made it to the World Series 5 times, and won 2. I’d much rather be the kind of team I’m talking about than playing against a team like that. Having the big players doing there job but the rest not exceeding their expectations has been the recipe for an early exit.

  7. I’ve stolen this thread and posted much of it to my own blog. Couldn’t resist, this stuff is too good, wanted to spread the word.

    My guess is, if we were watching a game together, we’d see pretty much the same thing. It’s our post-game descriptions that might differ. I don’t see a proper pivot by a second baseman or a properly-positioned catcher as being about coming together as a team. I look at it as the 2B and the C doing their job properly.

    We’re tied to our histories … I know I am. For many years now … let’s call it, oh, the Brian Sabean Era … my favorite team has loaded its roster with aged veterans who are “good in the clubhouse” or “have been there before,” in a vain attempt to create the most optimal conditions for the kind of team that “comes together” at the right time. The problem is, many/most of these players are mediocre major-leaguers by the time they reach the Giants, Meanwhile, we had the pleasure of watching the greatest player of his era on a daily basis … by most accounts, he was an ass, disliked by pretty much everyone except the local fans, the last person you’d sign to bring a team together. He was also far and away the primary reason the Giants were any good in those years. So it makes sense that I’d value guys who could actually play baseball over guys who can bring the team together. Meanwhile, Bengie Molina and Freddy Sanchez and Edgar Renteria and Mark DeRosa and Aaron Rowand take up space on the roster and/or DL, while Buster Posey hits the crap out of the ball in AAA.

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