Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 18, 2016

Pitchers And Catchers And Hope

At long last the day of unbridled promise arrives. Here in New England the sun rises into a sky of palest blue as the thermometer slowly presses higher, gamely trying to move above freezing. The groundhog has promised us an early spring, but the prognosticating rodent is notoriously unreliable. This has been a far easier winter than last; but we who live here know that while meteorological spring may be but two weeks away, the dead season is fully capable of retaining its icy grip well into March or even April. But for the moment thoughts of such an unpleasant possibility are shunted aside; for today is a glorious day. Whatever the temperature here, we know that in Florida and Arizona it is warmer. In those distant idylls the sun is shining and the breezes are gentle; perhaps not always but certainly on this day. For this is the day when pitchers and catchers report.

From Viera hard by the Atlantic to Tampa on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and from Glendale northwest of Phoenix to Tempe southeast of Arizona’s capital city, the battery mates are arriving, with position players soon to follow. Future Hall of Famers and journeymen alike, familiar faces and non-roster invitees, all report on schedule as the Great Game’s timeless rhythms are renewed. Since its earliest days as a popular sport, the ritual of gathering in the south for initial practices and exhibitions has been an integral part of baseball. The team then known as the Chicago White Stockings (not today’s White Sox as one might assume, but in fact the Cubs), first traveled to Hot Springs, Arkansas to prepare for the upcoming season in 1886. Half a dozen other franchises quickly followed.

The titans of the game’s early years made the journey to Arkansas every spring, players like Cap Anson and Cy Young and Honus Wagner. In 1918 a young Boston Red Sox pitcher showed he could swing the bat as well, blasting a pair of home runs in a March exhibition game in Hot Springs. Legend has it that the second shot traveled more than 570 feet. Whether that distance is truth or hyperbole, the pair of long balls were symbols of the majestic power that the player known for eternity by the simple nickname Babe possessed.

By the time Ruth smashed his twin homers many teams were choosing Florida as their spring training home. In the wake of World War II owner Bill Veeck took his Cleveland team to Arizona, and convinced the New York Giants to come along to the desert southwest. Since the beginning of this decade, the thirty franchises have been equally divided between the Sunshine State and the Valley of the Sun.

Pitchers and catchers report, and by early next week clubhouses will be full. Many players arrive with their place in the Opening Day starting lineup secure. But the locker rooms will also house aging veterans hoping for one last shot and callow kids dreaming of making the majors. Six weeks from now, when the final rosters are set and the regular season is at hand, some hopes will have crumbled and some dreams will have died. But on this first day surely anything seems possible.

So it is with the fans. On this day it doesn’t matter how one’s team finished last fall, nor what the experts predict. Here at the beginning, all thirty teams are even and every fan is allowed a moment to dream. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times penned an amusing column last Sunday speculating on what could go wrong to ruin the coming campaign for each team.  It’s likely that looking back from September one will find prescience in some of his paragraphs. Ultimately only ten teams will advance to the postseason, and two of those for but a single game. And at the end of that tournament, the players of just one franchise will be able to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, symbol of World Series glory.

While the immutable mathematics of the sport mandate that each of the 2,430 regular season games has a loser, here at the beginning it is impossible to say which team that will be in a single one. Pundits are already weighing in of course, and their predictions will only multiply through the exhibition season. Beyond individual opinions, websites dedicated to the advanced metrics that are used to analyze baseball more than any other sport have crunched the numbers and are offering projected standings for all six divisions. Once the regular season starts those computerized analyses will be updated on a regular basis and the projections constantly refined.

At a high level there is sage wisdom in the opinion of a writer who has been following baseball for decades, and there is great value in the complex metrics used by sites like Baseball Prospectus. With 750 players on Opening Day rosters and a 162 game schedule, most season-long performances can be reasonably well forecast based on what has happened before. That’s why most hot or cold streaks, whether by an individual player or an entire team, eventually go away as performance reverts to the mean.

Most, but not all. The initial Baseball Prospectus forecast has five teams winning more than 90 games with the Dodgers topping the majors at 94 wins. At the bottom of the standings two franchises are projected to win fewer than 70 contests, with the Phillies worst of all at 65 wins. Here at the beginning, we can be virtually certain that there will be more teams at both extremes when the regular season ends. In the past five years only once did so few teams top the 90-win mark, and in every one of those seasons multiple teams won more than 94 games. At the other end of the spectrum, in all of the past five seasons more than two clubs failed to win 70 times, and the worst mark every year was below the 65 projected for Philadelphia in 2016.

Which teams will outperform and which will fall short? It’s impossible to know, which is why every fan is entitled to hope on this first day. Because what no pundit can foresee nor any computer analysis foretell is that moment that will come late in a game on a Sunday afternoon in June. The moment when a batter swings and connects with the top half of a curveball that catches a little too much of the plate. The weakly hit ball will bounce slowly down the third base line, staying fair by only inches. The normally sure-footed third baseman will slip a bit as he starts to sprint in for the grounder, and by the time he gets to the ball the batter will have crossed first, safe on an infield single that traveled no more than fifty feet. The improbable hit will spark an unlikely rally, and from the unexpected come-from-behind victory a winning streak will be born.

The Great Game returns. The longest season awaits, and the only certainty is that it will contain thousands of such moments. That is why we will fill the stands. That is why they will play the games. That is why every fan of every team is entitled to be filled with hope, when pitchers and catchers report.

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