Idle Thoughts on Watching Late-Season Baseball

Entering play today, there are precisely three teams which have neither (a) clinched a playoff spot nor (b) been eliminated entirely from doing the same. Two of those teams, Atlanta and San Francisco, are very likely to make the posteason; the third, San Diego, is less likely, but has a compelling series this weekend against the Giants.

What that leaves us is 27 teams currently occupying a sort of competitive purgatory — playing without any hope of reaching the postseason and, yet, unable merely to concede the remainder of their games. Yes, there are implications for draft position and tickets that’ve already been sold, but, from a competitive standpoint exclusively, those teams are done-ity done done.

For those of us who like watching baseball, in general, and who, specifically, dedicate substantial amounts of time to devising systems by which we might adjudge the watchability of a particular contest (see: NERD), this particular time of year raises some questions. Well, one question mostly. This one:

Is there any appeal to watching a team that has either clinched, or been elimated from, a playoff spot?

It’s important to note immediately that we’re not considering team allegiance in this conversation. It’s very likely that people in Boston, for example, will continue to watch Red Sox games — because, well, that’s what you do if you’re a Boston fan. (Mind you, it’s not the only thing you do. You probably also refer to everybody as “guy” and use filthy, filthy language — even around grandmothers and newborns. But those matters aren’t germane to the present effort.)

For the neutral supporter, though, the question remains: is there any reason to watch a non-contending team?

I think we can “yes.” I think we can say it for a number of reasons, probably, but two reveal themselves immediately. For one, it’s still baseball, and watching baseball is, as foreign people are always saying in their foreign-sounding languages, “better than a kick in the face.”

So, that’s one reason.

The other is this: there are still things to learn. For example, consider yesterday’s Pirates-Cardinals game. I previewed it in a white-hot edition of One Night Only; Jackie Moore provided the readership with some equally hot postgame notes on the performances of starting pitchers Young James McDonald and Even Younger P.J. Walters. Yes, the game was meaningless so far as wins and losses are concerned this year, but it’s likely that those two starters and any number of field players — Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez — it’s likely they all contribute, at some level, to future wins. Smart baseball fans care about that type of thing.

So we can say with some degree of certainty that the so-called “meaningless” games we’re talking about — we can say that they have some value, that they’re not meaningless to the curiouser of us.

But that prompts us to ask another question, specifically: is it possible for any of these so-called meaningless games — is it possible that even the most interesting of them could be more compelling than a game featuring a still-contending team?

Consider the Diamondbacks, for example. Or the Brewers. Both teams rate pretty highly by NERD’s exacting standards (a 9 for each). Arizona is young and plays excellent defense. Milwaukee has the best offense in the NL by park-adjusted wRAA. Both teams hit for power, feature modest payrolls, and have scored fewer runs than their Base Runs totals would otherwise suggest. Those are all qualities amenable to the baseball nerd.

The Giants and Braves, on the other hand, feature NERD scores of 4 and 5, respectively — not bad scores, but not great, either. San Francisco runs the bases poorly, they’re on the old side, they feature a slightly below-average offense. Really, a lot of their aesthetic value is in the quality of their starting rotation. As for Atlanta, they also run the bases poorly, they feature one of the league’s poorer Team UZRs, and their HR/FB ratio is below average.

Of course, the difference is that both of those teams (i.e. the Giants and Braves) are playing meaningful games — meaningful in the traditional baseball sense. So while, yes, the Brewers might be more interesting than the Braves in a vacuum, the circumstances presented by a playoff race aren’t very vacuum-y at all.

We’re confronted with a truth, then. Roger Caillois discusses it somewhere in his excellent Man, Play, and Games, but I have no idea where I’ve deposited my copy of said text, nor am I particularly inclined to go looking for it. In any case, I’m almost positive that Caillois writes something like this in it, something like: for whatever its other vrtues, a game that doesn’t incentivize winning — or that features even a single contestant for whom victory isn’t the primary objective — that is, by definition, a less interesting game.

As I very obviously have no intention of reaching something so pedestrian as a “conclusion” in the present work, allow me to end with two notes, as follows:

1. Given the nature of competition and games, it’s unlikely that a game between two eliminated (or playoff-bound) teams — it’s unlikely that said game could be more interesting than one featuring a still-contending team.

2. On the other hand, merely because a team — owing to its place in the standings — merely because a team as a whole lacks incentive to win a game, this doesn’t necessarily apply to all the individual players involved in the game. For example, in the case of the aforementioned Pirates-Cardinals game, we can assume that St. Louis starter P.J. Walters in fact had a great deal of incentive to perform well. As a young pitcher likely to compete for a spot on the 2011 Cardinals, Walters presumably wanted very much to dominate his opponent and impress the major league coaching staff, who ultimately have control over his career and, thus, his livelihood. We might even say that Walters had more incentive to perform ably in yesterday’s game than a veteran player on a contending team.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

19 Responses to “Idle Thoughts on Watching Late-Season Baseball”

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  1. Rich says:


    Um, what? I’m from Boston, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone call anyone “guy”

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  2. CSJ says:

    Instead of viewing this as which game would I rather watch, we can say that there is an added bonus to watching a game that has playoff implications, especially so near the end of the season. A game between the Diamondbacks and Pirates may still be a more interesting one to watch based on one’s allegiances and desire to see prospects, but a game involving the Braves or Giants, which by the way, have two of the more exciting prospects around, may now be a more interesting game to watch than it would be otherwise. In other words, Dbacks team NERD = 9 and Braves team NERD = 5 (+2).

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  3. Good piece. Even though I am a Yankee fan, I’ve been given the opportunity (since they’ve been eliminated) to root for Jon Lester tonight. I would like to see him get 20 wins, which would certainly bolster his Cy Young resume (which I think he deserves). Also, he’s one of my favorite players, and I like to find excuses to root for him.

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  4. John says:

    So I might ask myself, “Self, Cistulli is such a good writer how does he not know what ‘begs the question’ means?”

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  5. Chris J says:


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  6. Burt Lavallo, friend to all says:

    I think you mean 21 teams currently occupying competitive purgatory. (6 teams have made the postseason).

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  7. TK says:

    I’m not sure I understand why teams that have qualified, but have not secured the best possible spot in the post season rankings stop trying (if they do). The Phillies (best) and Rangers (worst div. winner) have nothing to play for, but the other four playoff teams can still win homefield advantage (for the Reds, the first round only, but they would avoid Philly in an 8-day, 5-game series that will feature each Roy twice and a Cole).

    I understand lining up your staff and getting a little rest for injured/sore players, but I’d still try to win those games.

    As for excitement – I think NERD score jumps the shark when you think watching the DBacks and Brewers play meaningless games is more exciting than watching teams play pseudo-playoff games.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    I’ll start off by saying that I’ve been pretty much done watching baseball for about 3 weeks now. I guess that happens when you have 3 kids involved in sports, and coach 2 of the teams. But, really, I don’t feel as though I am missing anything by not watching. College and pro football is here, and most of the MLB divisions have been pretty much settled for weeks now. I don’t mind just waiting for the playoffs, and even then I really don’t feel as though I’ll miss anything if I skip the entire LDS completely (seriously, don;t care much at all about the LDS) … and I say that as a lifer baseball guy (20 years playing, 10 years coaching HS).

    Yes, the game was meaningless so far as wins and losses are concerned this year, but it’s likely that those two starters and any number of field players — Daniel Descalso and Allen Craig and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez — it’s likely they all contribute, at some level, to future wins. Smart baseball fans care about that type of thing.

    [1] Must be nice to have an extra 3 hours of time to watch something like a late-September game between StL-PIT when both teams have been eliminated. Actually, that would be kind of sad.

    [2] The players you mentioned could all have had MONSTER games, and still been horrible or meaningless in 2011. Smart fans know that. Why the heck would a treat a late September call-up game as if it meant something. Lots of players have had big spetembers and then nothing the following year … I know, I used to try and scalp these guys (min 40 ABs) is our fantasy league.

    PJ Walters could have thrown a no-hitter, and that would not mean anything great for 2011. See Bud Smith.

    I love the game, but honestly, not having time to sit down and watch 3 hours of baseball in one sitting might be one of the best parts of my life. Seriously.

    This article reads as if it is someway slighting those thatr are still not watching meaningless baseball ga,mes as if they were worth devoting time to.

    IMO, you need to show a STRONG correlation between late-september performance and a quality performance the following year, to make this conclusion in the article valid. Without that, it’s just a bunch of words.

    Okay, back to work.

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    • I love the game, but honestly, not having time to sit down and watch 3 hours of baseball in one sitting might be one of the best parts of my life. Seriously.

      Who are you to tell me how to derive optimum pleasure from my life? Every baseball game is meaningless. Every. Single. One. Even your kids’ games. They have meaning to you because you’re a (probably excellent) father.
      Along with all the wisdom you impart, try to pass on a bit of humility. Some people love baseball. Some people love knitting. Some people love literature. Some people love noodling. Some people love insects. Not everyone wants a family, and the world is probably better for it. As a Royals fan, I probably watch 30-40 games per year, live or televised. Sometimes I can’t, or don’t want to, watch the whole game. Some fans have to watch every out of every game that the Royals play. Are their lives less meaningful because of their fanaticism? Not at all. Not if they derive pleasure from the activity.
      Of course, we could all dedicate our lives to service to our fellow man, expecting no reward but the warm fuzzies that come with altruism, but we don’t. We do what pleases us. We try not to harm others and we ascribe meaning to life in different ways. Don’t pity others for enjoying themselves. That would be kind of sad.

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  9. Eric says:

    Nice piece, thanks.

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  10. Bad Bill says:

    Is it really so difficult to understand that some people watch baseball because it is beautiful? And that the beauty has very little to do with who has clinched what?

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