Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 30, 2022

The Conventional Wisdom Wobbles Into Philly

Like Pavlov’s dogs, we fans start salivating at the mere mention of expert predictions on our favorite games, our involuntary response triggered by the expectation of some reward that, unlike feeding time for pets, is often vague.  Perhaps we hope to gain advantage in a fantasy league or win a serious return wagering for real, or maybe we just think the knowledge of insiders will allow us to sound authoritative when discussing sports with friends.  Whatever the reason, fan interest compels even reluctant sportswriters to try the impossible by predicting the outcome not just of individual games but of entire seasons.  A few even publicly acknowledge the absurdity of the exercise, though if such a member of the media lucks into a correct forecast – and make no mistake, happenstance and good fortune always play an outsized role in making a writer appear prescient – he or she is usually quick to boast.

Predictions are especially perilous in the Great Game, with the inevitable ups and downs of its long and winding season.  That much is clear by a review of the bold predictions made seven months ago by scores of scribes who earn a living covering baseball.  Fans were inundated with forecasts in the days before the longest season began.  Looking back on all those printed words from the safety of late October, two things stand out.  One is how despite the enormous volume so many of the predictions were the same, and the second is how thoroughly wrong the consensus choices for World Series opponents, and the eventual champion, were.

Based on what we were told in late March, our eyes have deceived us the last two nights.  What appeared to be Minute Maid Park in Houston during the first two games of the Series was in fact the Rogers Centre in Toronto.  Further, while one may have read reports that the last two teams standing traveled east on Sunday to prepare for Game 3, in fact the journey was westbound, for the Series will resume Monday evening at Dodger Stadium.  For those with commitments the next few days that will prevent them from tuning in, rest assured that the die is already cast – the Blue Jays are going to win the World Series.  Sorry Dodgers fans.  So said the collective voice of four writers at the Ringer, five at CBS Sports, and a whopping seventy-three at, to pick just a handful of the sites that engaged in this annual ritual.

This is not to poke fun at the writers who offered up their opinions back in the Spring.  As noted, predictions like these amount to little more than a parlor game.  But the extent to which Toronto was the overwhelming choice to lift the Commissioner’s Trophy, and Los Angeles nearly as popular a call to win the National League pennant, are reminders that even in an empty exercise like this there is a tendency toward herding.  While the occasional tweeted hot take may drive clicks, few writers really want to go too far out on a limb.  Following the crowd can make one look good when the consensus proves correct.  Virtually everyone asked picked the Astros to win the AL West, though that was also one of the easier predictions given both the recent history of that division and the state of its teams going into the season.  But among all those forecasts just one lonely writer had Houston advancing to the World Series, and the popular predictions included other major misses beyond the overconfidence in the Blue Jays.  The Giants safely in the postseason as a Wild Card?  The Brewers and White Sox as division champs?  No, no and not even close.  And only a tiny number of writers were bold enough to put the Phillies in their postseason brackets.

While the preseason predictions are mostly just something to talk about instead of fixating on results from small sample sizes in the early days of the season, they sometimes create a narrative for the campaign that lives on despite results on the field.  The White Sox muddled along all year, but as the popular pick to win the AL Central, the franchise was always deemed on the verge of breaking out, until suddenly it was cast aside as a profound disappointment.  Maybe Chicago was just a .500 team all along, regardless of who was making out the lineup card or which players were on the field.

Now we have come to the end.  By next weekend, and maybe sooner, either the Astros or Phillies will celebrate a title.  Naturally, the season concludes as it began, with scores of predictions.  Though it does not always happen this way, this year those forecasts yielded a consensus nearly as overwhelming as the preseason one, and that in turn meant a narrative for the World Series was firmly set before the first pitch was thrown.

The Astros began the Series as heavy favorites, on the strength of a 106-win season and an unblemished record through the team’s first two playoff rounds.  Given that, it was perhaps out of necessity that the Phillies were cast as the unlikely upstarts, unexpected party crashers who would spend the winter being happy to have made it this far once Houston finished them off.

That narrative looked altogether correct through the first three innings of Game 1, as the Astros jumped out to a 5-0 lead and likely AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander retired the Phillies in order the first time through the batting order.  But by the time Verlander trudged off the mound two frames later the score was tied, and it remained that way through nine, with Philadelphia’s defensively challenged right fielder Nick Castellanos snatching a walkoff win away from Houston with a fine sliding catch of a Jeremy Pena blooper as Jose Altuve was racing home from second in the bottom of the 9th.  Philadelphia catcher J.T. Realmuto then led off the 10th by driving a full count fastball from Luis Garcia into the right field seats.  David Robertson wobbled in the bottom of the frame, but true to his “Houdini” nickname from days with the Yankees, escaped to earn the save.

That unlikely outcome set the established narrative wobbling worse than Robertson had, at least for 24 hours.  Then the Astros again struck first in Game 2, and this time starter Framber Valdez delivered the performance Houston fans had been expecting from Verlander.  Astros 5, Phillies 2, World Series all square.

The teams thus headed to Philadelphia with the favored storyline more or less in place.  But that conventional wisdom misses the reality that the Phillies are a strong franchise that badly underperformed for the first two months of the season.  Only three teams have larger payrolls than Philadelphia, and Houston is not one of them.  With Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hopkins and Realmuto, the Phillies have plenty of offense, and the front line of the starting rotation would be a welcome addition to most clubs.  Aaron Nola in Game 1 and Zack Wheeler in Game 2 did not deliver, but then neither did Verlander for Houston.  The best starter by far was Valdez, whose ERA in two starts during last year’s World Series was 19.29.  Try fitting that into a conventional narrative.

Perhaps the Astros will run the table, or short of that, prevail fairly easily.  But if that is the case, it won’t be because a bunch of sportswriters forecast the result, but because of what happens on the field.  And the only certainty in what is now a short, best-of-five series, is that anything can happen.  Predictions can be entertaining, but the Phillies and Astros still have to play the games.

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