Rational Exuberance and the 2012 Orioles

I woke up this morning to find the article I’d been hoping to avoid for some time now.

In his guest column for Baseball Prospectus, The Agony of Rational Rooting, Nick Piecoro gives voice to a nagging feeling he’s had – that, despite how enjoyable it may be to see a struggling team’s fanbase re-energized, the Baltimore Orioles’ 2012 season doesn’t seem earned.

I’ve been fearing this article not because I thought it would anger me, but because I knew it would force me to confront the same unconscious debate I’ve been having with myself.

On this website I’ve discussed the role of randomness in baseball in a column called “O Fortuna.” In it, I’ve analyzed small sample sizes, the unsustainable trends that result from them, and the expected regression to the mean. It’s a topic that’s long been a favorite of those interested in objective analysis of the game.

My purpose in writing the column was neither to castigate nor praise teams benefiting from unsustainable trends, but to acknowledge what a large role randomness plays in the game. The conclusion was always that unsustainable trends should tend to buck over time, but the truth is, sometimes they don’t. Not for a while, at least.

And so we are faced with the mother of unsustainable trends: the 2012 Baltimore Orioles.

The numbers are as staggering as they are undeniable. With 15 games remaining in the season, the Orioles currently sit on an 83-64 record – just half a game behind the Yankees at the top of the AL East and on pace for their first playoff appearance since 1997. Despite this, Baltimore has actually been outscored by its opponents by 14 runs. No American League team with a negative run differential is within 12 games of them. The Orioles are 27-8 in 1 run games. They are 66-0 when leading after 7 innings. They have pitched and hit disproportionately well in high leverage situations. The list goes on.

Think of a metric that tends to be unrepeatable from year to year, and the 2012 Orioles have probably benefited from it. To deny this would be to fly in the face of objectivity and rationality.

But the question is this: can we acknowledge the absurdity and unrepeatability of the Baltimore’s season and enjoy it anyway? Or does this require either a superhuman capacity for compartmentalization or a healthy dose of willful ignorance?

The truth about sports is that we celebrate randomness as much as we do talent.

There is no better example of this than in baseball. We cram 162 games into a grueling six month schedule to determine the eight (now ten) strongest teams, only to say, “to hell with it,” rip up the standings and let a few short series determine the champion. We do this because it’s exciting. We do this because it allows for the possibility that quirky, fluky, unforeseen outcomes may occur.

And this, I think, is what really draws most of us to sports – the unconscious realization that chance can afford incredible results.

This is as true in baseball as in every day life, and the Greeks knew it well. Tyche, the blind goddess of luck, ruled over Hellenistic humanity with an unrelenting inconsistency. And while the vicissitudes of time could not be predicted, the only certainty was that fortune would repeatedly rear her head in the fates of men, and when she did, you had better hope she was on your side.

In his piece, Piecoro wonders – genuinely I think – whether his frustration over the Orioles’ over-performance is rational or irrational. I respect him for being honest about his conflicting feelings and attempting to make sense of them.

The only thing I can conclude is that variance, randomness, outliers – these things are to be expected. What is irrational is to expect a season of baseball governed by the sustainability of trends. That expectation is opposed to what we observe and celebrate about sports.

I think the secret to enjoying Baltimore’s success in 2012 is to let rationality govern its realm and recede when appropriate.

Should any of us expect similar outcomes if the skill-level and performance of this year’s team were to repeat itself? No. God, no. But does that make the outcomes to date any less real? No, and to feel angst over the enjoyment of those outcomes is to forget some basic human impulses.

The 2012 Orioles have been lucky, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

About The Author

- Senior Editor & Columnist

Dan joined Orioles Nation in March 2010. He is freelance baseball writer and blogger currently residing in Richmond, Virginia. He focuses specifically on the balance between statistical analysis and traditional scouting.