Judging the Royals

Baseball: why emotional explanations are incomplete

The Royals' Yordano Ventura started game two of the World Series against the Giants on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals' Yordano Ventura started game two of the World Series against the Giants on Wednesday at Kauffman Stadium. The Kansas City Star

Those of us who cover sports like to talk about heart and will-to-win and a never-say-die-attitude; but most of the time—if you really pay attention—there are much more logical explanations for what we see happening on a baseball field.

But let’s back up and start at the beginning.

Results are easy; results are what happened and we can all figure that out by looking at a box score. Process is why and how the results happened and that’s much more difficult to understand. And since it’s difficult to understand the media tends to fall back on emotional explanations: "This team won because it wanted it more, that team lost because they were feeling the pressure."

Those explanations might be true, but even if they are, there’s much more to it than that. Take the first-inning home run the Giants Gregor Blanco hit off Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura in Game Two of this World Series.

Ventura threw eight straight fastballs to Blanco; three of them could have been called strikes, but Ventura didn’t get those calls. So when the count went to 3-2 Ventura did not want to walk the Giants leadoff hitter, but he had yet to throw anything off-speed; he probably had no feel for a curve at that point. That meant Ventura threw yet another fastball. And the fact that he’d thrown three borderline pitches that had been called balls meant Yordano had to throw a pitch toward the middle of the zone—he wasn’t getting the corners.

By this time Blanco had timed up Ventura’s fastball—he’d seen eight of them—and when he got one up and in the middle of the plate, Gregor crushed it. That didn’t happen because Blanco had heart and Ventura didn’t throw that pitch because the pressure got to him; the explanation is much more logical than that.

After Game One a friend asked me what was wrong with the Royals that night and I said: "Madison Bumgarner".

Fans tend to think that if their team hits well it’s because they did a good job hitting and if their team does poorly it’s because they did a bad job hitting; but the guy on the mound matters. Hitters don’t all forget how to hit one night or all get hot in the same game; it’s usually the pitcher that’s making the difference. And in Game One Bumgarner was dealing.

Bumgarner was pitching ahead in the count; he faced 26 batters and threw strike one to 21 of them. That night James Shields was struggling to get ahead in the count; he faced 16 batters and threw strike one to nine of them. When a pitcher is ahead in the count he can expand the strike zone, throw to the corners and get the hitters to chase those pitches. When a pitcher is behind in the count he has to throw more toward the middle of the plate. And if the pitcher can’t throw his off-speed stuff for strikes he’s reduced to throwing fastballs in the middle of the strike zone. If you pay attention you can see this happening and understand the results.

If you don’t pay attention you’ll be reduced to emotional explanations.

But emotions do matter

Most of the time the guy who can feel less emotional—the guy who can back off and treat this at bat like any other—has an advantage: he’s being rational while his opponent is being emotional.

But not all emotions are negative.

A team that believes it’s going to win has a better chance of winning. Even if they’re behind on the scoreboard they’ll look for opportunities to get back in the game and jump on one when it presents itself. And a team that won a Wild Card game like the Royals did should be resilient: even they’re behind they can tell themselves they’ve been behind before and still came out on top.

Teams that believe they’re going to lose are at a disadvantage. One bad thing turns into two and three bad things because they’re moping and not playing the game at their best. So it’s not that emotions don’t matter at all, they just matter less than the media might lead you to believe.

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