Outcomes and Desire

Last night, we saw a lot of things happen. Amazing things, in fact. We saw four teams fighting to make their last six months of hard work mean something, to keep their season’s alive. We saw two teams complete two of the most epic collapses in Major League history. We saw the Rays win a game in which their WPA once stood at 0.3%, and we saw one of the best closers in baseball give up consecutive hits to Chris Davis, Nolan Reimold, and Robert Andino.

But there was also one thing I didn’t see last night – a single player on any of those teams who gave less than maximum effort. I didn’t see one single player show signs of apathy. I saw players win and I saw players lose, but I didn’t see anyone who won or lost because they lacked the internal moral fiber to make it happen.

For whatever reason, it has become fashionable in America to take the results of sporting events and extrapolate character and fortitude from the outcome. Within seconds of Evan Longoria‘s second home run of the night, we were being told that we saw “one team who wanted it and one team who didn’t know how to get it”, with the inference being that Tampa Bay’s improbable comebacks were the result of their determination and willpower, while the Red Sox collapse shows that they simply didn’t have that kind of inner strength.

It’s all B.S. If reality was dictated by the strength of one’s desire, every 18-year-old boy in America would be sleeping with Megan Fox. It is a simple basic rule of humanity that we cannot will something into existence. Yes, we can work hard and put ourselves in position to receive those things that we want to happen, but at the end of the day, a huge part of what happens to us is beyond our control.

I guarantee you that Jonathan Papelbon badly wanted to finish out the ninth inning in Baltimore last night. You can’t have seen Marco Scutaro use every ounce of athletic ability he was given to turn a circus double play and think that he wasn’t giving his all last night. Michael Bourn used every last bit of speed he had to try and steal his way into better position all night long. Dan Uggla couldn’t have possibly used any more effort to try and score on Jack Wilson‘s sixth inning single.

All of those players are sitting at home today, their season over, wishing they had one more chance to make it right. Every single one of them wanted to win last night – they wanted to win all month long. They just couldn’t make it happen, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or inner strength. The outcome of a baseball game is not something you can determine through willpower, and the results of the struggle is not a pathway to teaching us about the character of the combatants.

The Rays and Cardinals should be lauded for their accomplishments. Their managers have every right to be proud of their teams for never giving up even when history suggested that they were fighting a losing battle. However, there’s no reason to believe that the Red Sox or the Braves gave up in September, or that their failures were the result of some kind of deficiency on the inside.

We can applaud resilience and determination without getting into character assassinations for those who came up short. Baseball is beautiful because it’s not predetermined, and it gives us nights like last night. Let’s celebrate the greatness of the game and those who play it – even those who aren’t celebrating today. Their fight and their spirit to play on gave us the drama that we’re all relishing this morning. No one rolled over. No one gave up. Baseball just happened.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


69 Responses to “Outcomes and Desire”

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  1. hunterfan says:

    I agree with you in regards to last night. However, I think there might be a larger narrative. Several of the players on the Red Sox, for example, looked dog tired this last month. I have no doubt whatsoever that they were trying in the individual games. But what if the real problem is that they didn’t get after it hard enough in the offseason with proper conditioning programs?

    Sometimes the results of the games might hinge on decisions made several months ago, where one player “got after it” in his offseason conditioning and the other “didn’t want it enough.”

    Whether or not you agree that’s the case in this specific instance, I think the pendulum might be swinging too far in the other direction where we don’t think the outcome of games is ever tied to who works harder. Sometimes it still is about desire and working hard, albeit in the offseason (on your swing, on conditioning, on defense, etc.) as opposed to in the game itself.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      I don’t think any of us believe that work ethic doesn’t matter – we’re just saying that you can’t and shouldn’t infer that a team that lost actually put in less work than the team that won. If we had access to these players all winter long, and could chronicle who was working hard to improve their game versus who was sitting at home eating big macs, then we could make some comments about the difference in character between players.

      But inferring that because Robert Andino hit Jonathan Papelbon’s 97 MPH fastball six inches in front of Carl Crawford? That’s not evidence of a lack of work ethic.

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      • NEPP says:

        The ball bounced off his glove…

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      • TFINY says:

        NEPP…still not a lack of work ethic.

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      • NEPP says:

        Never implied or meant that it was…but he HAS to make that catch.

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      • Earl Sweatshirt says:

        All month you were complaining about the MSM writing off the Red Sox and Braves, citing examples of teams playing poorly in September only to have great postseason results. While I agree struggling in September doesn’t necessarily mean bad things for October, you largely ignored the fact that the Boston Red Sox of the last month were not the same team they were earlier in the season. No, the W-L record wasn’t as bad as the results indicated the past month, but you dismissed the struggles as simply part of baseball. No one saw this team missing the playoffs, but reasonable people understood the Red Sox weren’t in a position to suceed in October without an unforseen turnaround from multiple players who were either hurt, recovering from an injury, or had performed poorly over an extended stretch.

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      • When analysis explains at best 70-80 % of what happens in the game, every now and then that silent 20-30 % controls events. You either deal with what some call the ‘imponderables’ with better or different analysis in the future, or blame Jobu. By the way Jobu is the code word for the N is too small.

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    • Jross says:

      I don’t see why its hard to believe that some players have a better “work ethic” than others, and it pays off for those that do have it conditioning wise in the off season. In addition, these players would then be physically more prepared to do better than they would have if they hadn’t of ” put in the work”.

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      • Hermy says:

        You are correct some players do have better work ethic than others, no one is denying that. What Dave is saying is that it is impossible to say that the Rays players as a group had a better work ethic than Red Sox players just because the Rays won one more game, and “the Red Sox looked tired in September.”

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      • Proud Moonie (Unificationist) says:

        David Wells is a fat-ass who didn’t seem to condition, but he was a good pitcher. In fact, he pitched a perfect game while being hung-over. Too bad he has T2DM.

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  2. jake says:

    I think we can safely assume that J.D. Drew was a bit apathetic about the game. It is J.D. Drew after all.

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    • NBarnes says:

      I think we can safely assume that J.D. Drew looked a bit apathetic about the game. It’s J.D. Drew, least emotive player in baseball.

      He’s also one of the top right fielders in baseball in WAR over the last 5 years or so. That doesn’t tend to be the result of apathy.

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  3. jeffblauser says:

    That was beautifully written. Thank you.

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  4. Todd says:

    Baseball just happened.

    Epic statement and so very true.

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  5. Ben says:

    I agree and fwiw I don’t have a problem with Carl Crawford’s missed catch, but I do think his throw to the plate from shallow left field was completely uninspiring effort-wise (and i can’t believe people are focusing on one and not the other)

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    • NEPP says:

      He’s supposed to be the best defensive LF in baseball. He needs to make that catch. Also, that throw was pathetic.

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      • Sean says:

        In defense of the throw, I think he knew as soon as he realized the ball wasn’t in his glove that there was nothing he could do. Some guys at that point wouldn’t even bother lobbing the ball in.

        But the Red Sox definitely looked, at various points this month, defeated, deflated, and demoralized. Maybe not necessarily last night, but throughout the month as a whole.

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      • Ben says:

        It only looks like there was nothing he could do because he lollipopped it in like that. on throws (as with most things in baseball) it’s the fractions of seconds and fractions of inches that count. a hard straight throw had a good chance to nail reimold.

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      • Andrew says:

        Supposed to be the best defensive LF in baseball? Most will recognize that Gardner is better. Crawford still should have made that catch, obviously.

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    • Carl Crawford says:

      If Francona would have let me bat 2nd, I would have tried harder.

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  6. mkd says:

    One of the guys calling the game on ESPN (I think it was Sutcliffe) said that he could see in Papelbon’s eyes that Papelbon was going to close out the game. One of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard uttered on television.

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  7. Jose Reyes says:

    Those are kind words, but I gave up.

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  8. 300ZXNA says:

    “It’s all B.S. If reality was dictated by the strength of one’s desire, every 18-year-old boy in America would be sleeping with Megan Fox.”

    Fangraphs quote of the year right there. :)

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  9. robbbbbb says:

    “It’s all B.S. If reality was dictated by the strength of one’s desire, every 18-year-old boy in America would be sleeping with Megan Fox.”

    That’s a good line. And then you think about it a little bit more, and it gets creepy and gross. If every 18 year old boy in America was sleeping with Megan Fox, then, ewwww…..

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  10. Andrew says:

    As an 18-year-old boy in America, I can assure you that there are many women I’d sleep with before Megan Fox.

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  11. Ace says:

    As a 28 year old “boy” , I assure you that I to want to sleep with Megan Fox.

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    • Black_Rose says:

      Maybe the fact that you are a habitue of FanGraphs repels most desirable women.

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      • NEPP says:

        Every time I WHIP out my WAR, all the girls run away…

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I just look to get lucky on Balls In Play.

        Unfortunately my K% is too high.

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      • Black_Rose says:

        Yeah, circle.

        I’m a lefty with a fastball (in the 89-93 mph range; averages 91) with plus movement, and a plus-plus circle-change and a plus curve, with the occasional slider. I also have plus-plus control, and paint the low corners with my change-up/curve tandem while my 11-5 curve the flummox hitters with its large downward and glove-side break.

        “Unfortunately my K% is too high.”

        Do you have any power like Ryan Howard or Mike Stanton (the Marlins player) who have a K% > 25 and an ISO >.200 to compensate? Or you are like Jeff Mathis with a an ISO 25%?

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      • Someanalyst says:

        Is this thread some kind of sabermetric lekking? Fascinating…

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  12. john says:

    I heard the comment you refer to in the third paragraph and had basically the same reaction. It’s quibbling, but I might have titled this post “Can we all agree, once and for all, that Rick Sutcliffe is a moron?”

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  13. cwendt says:

    I don’t about the players putting in maximum effort, but I’m pretty sure Joe Girardi wasn’t putting in maximum effort, bringing in Luis Ayala (4.19 FIP) instead of David Robertson (1.84) to get out of a bases loaded, 0 out jam in the 8th, or depending on Cory Wade (his 4th best reliever by pedigree or performance) to hold a one-run game in the 9th, instead of Mariano Rivera.

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    • Andrew says:

      You couldn’t possibly have watched or listened to the game, or you would have heard the commentators belaboring the fact that Girardi was *not* going to use his best relievers in a meaningless game when both had pitched the night before and the playoffs were two days away. Girardi would have been fired, and rightly so, if he even thought about bringing in Mariano. You must be a bitter Sox fan.

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      • cwendt says:

        I’m a Yankees fan, I’m just giving some perspective.

        The Rays may have won because they were giving maximum effort. But they also won because the Yankees DIDN’T give maximum effort in their tactical decisions. They didn’t play their A lineup. They pulled their starters early. Two of the three games were started by pitchers making their 2nd & 1st MLB starts. They left the highest leverage situations to arguably their 4th-6th relievers, after giving Robertson & Mo meaningless innings down 5-3 the day before.

        Basically, I’m saying that the Yankees gave the Rays maybe 75% tactical effort (even if what was on the field played at 100%), and it STILL took everything the Rays had plus a Triple Play + a Dan Johnson HR to win those games.

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      • Black_Rose says:

        The game certainly wasn’t meaningless.

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      • Andrew says:

        It was meaningless to the Yankees.

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    • Everett says:

      Why the heck would the Yankees put in their best two relievers who had pitched the night before when the entire point of the game from their perspective is to not get hurt and get their important players some rest?

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    • cwendt says:

      Essentially, what I’m saying is this:

      Talent on the field is one way of measuring “effort”. Another way to measure is to evaluate the decision making that goes into what gets put on the field.

      The Yankees gave maximum effort on the field (the players in the game played their best) and strategically (they probably maximized their postseason chances by resting their starters). But tactically, there were simple things they could have done to maximize the chance of winning one of those games and they didn’t.

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      • Andrew says:

        No, the Yankees didn’t play like it was Game 7 of the World Series, because it wasn’t *their* elimination game. They put forth every reasonable effort when you consider that they have a playoff series starting tomorrow.

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    • Mark says:

      Both RS and Rays played against Yankees B or even C lineups, both got the chance to beat up on them. Why should Girardi put in his best relievers 2 days before the playoffs in a game that means nothing to them? Would it not be irresponsible for him to work his best arms two days in a row for zero net gain?

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  14. TitoGrantana says:

    The only downside to last night is that the Phillies pitchers will probably lead them past Pujols/Holliday and the Cards, which will only add to the “Ryan Howard is the best 1B in baseball and Holliday’s contract is much more questionable” stuff from the Heymans.

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  15. GiantHusker says:

    Outstanding article full of something that needed to be said. Even some of the commenters revealed that they have fallen for that “the team who wants it most” bullshit.

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  16. Skip B. says:

    Effort is one thing. But the Sox and Braves lacked a clutch gene.

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  17. Hurtlocker says:

    What a day for baseball fans!!! Excitement, drama, dynamic effort as the article so clearly describes. Last wasn’t a day about WAR or any other statistic, it was about teams fighting, scratching and just wanting to win. Great article, great day for baseball!!

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  18. CircleChange11 says:

    That wasn’t even Scutaro’s best play …. his best play was the sliding grab he made up the middle that ended in an infield single. Obviously, Scutaro should have wanted it more.

    I think desire does count, and I think there are players that have more natural “desire” than others … but not nearly to the degree that some think.

    Jose Valverde, now THERE’s a guy that REALLY wants it. I mean do you see how intense he is during each save? Now, THAT’s how it’s done, THAT’s desire. <— Sarcasm

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  19. Ted Lilly says:

    Damn, no one cares about me. I pitched 7 scoreless innings last night against the D-Backs with 5K/1BB.

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  20. Jason says:

    Dave,

    If your point is that everyone that plays wants to win, that is certainly true. However, this might not be the mindset that is most pertinent. Perhaps confidence plays a role as well and these could very well be different between the two teams. The Redsox had little reason to feel good about themselves and the Rays the opposite. I don’t have a hard time believing that the team’s different mindsets played some role in the game.

    Also, the Rays were playing against a team that didn’t care about the outcome of the game. The Rays knew they weren’t going to see any of the Yankees best pitchers late in the game. That had to give them confidence. On the other hand, Baltimore certainly wanted to win that game. That was their playoffs. They played it like the 7th game of the WS and they won it.

    I have a hard time believing the mental aspect of the game is BS.

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  21. Mat says:

    Crawford didn’t run out a groundball as hard as he could in the middle of the game that ultimately was a very close play at first. It was apparent in real-time and on the replays and was noted by both Orioles announcers. Not to commit the logical fallacy of the overwhelming exception, but I have to disagree. I did see a player last night not give it their best effort. In that game you have to run out EVERY ball as hard as possible.

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  22. Peter Campbell says:

    Not EVERY 18 year old boy in America. If “reality was dictated by the strength of one’s desire,” a small but significant minority of 18 year old boys would more likely be sleeping with Matt Holliday.

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  23. Sultan of Shhhhwwwing says:

    I can’t imagine any sane person thinking that every player for both ATL and BOS was not trying last night. But that’s not what’s been said. What’s been said is that certain players choked, and certain teams were unprepared, which is 100% true. You can’t not try in games like this. You can however over-try and screw the pooch doing so.

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  24. lboros says:

    i actually think the broadcaster’s phrase — “one team who wanted it and one team who didn’t know how to get it” — is spot on. it doesn’t call into question the *desire* or *effort* of the losing team, but it does suggest that they failed as competitors at a fundamental level. that’s not always fair to say about a losing team, but when said team has played .300ish baseball for a whole month with everything on the line, then it doesn’t seem out of line to say they failed to compete adequately — ie, “didn’t know how to get it.”

    i don’t think any member of the braves or red sox organizations would argue w/ that notion. i’m sure they are all asking themselves today, “how could i/we have let this happen? what could i/we have done differently? what can i/we do better next time?” i think very few are telling themselves, “there’s nothing more we could have done. we had maximum desire and gave maximum effort, and therefore we can and should accept this outcome.”

    if the players themselves know they let something slip through their fingers, why is it wrong for a commentator to say the same thing?

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  25. spankystout says:

    Nicely put Dave.

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  26. BDF says:

    The “one team wanted it more” locution is ridiculous tripe, no doubt about it. Reminds me of Bouton’s story about a Sal Maglie meeting in spring training to discuss the team’s high number of walks. Maglie opens the meeting by saying, “Listen, you guys aren’t concentrating enough.” Yeah, suuurrrre.

    But if a “one team wanted it more” is shorthand for “one team was in a better mental state to let their talent and practice propel them to victory” (analogous to how “luck” is often used as shorthand for “random variation”), it might have meaning. The Red Sox were surely trying their best last night, but it is possible that they were not so mentally situated as to make their best play a possibility.

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  27. Breadbaker says:

    I remember watching the body language of the Red Sox and Rays after their respective wins on Tuesday night. The Red Sox looked tight and weary. The Rays looked like they were playing with an unlimited credit line of house money. And I said to myself, it might be totally irrelevant. Papelbon makes one more good pitch and the worst player in the majors in 2011 doesn’t hit one of the most improbable home runs ever, and the Red Sox are heading to Texas right now. Either doesn’t happen and we’ re watching a play-in game in Tampa. In an at-bat, a game or a season, baseball is a fragile thing where the superior team doesn’t always win.

    Put another way, this is a typical media syllogism: I looked at one aspect of the difference between the teams and concluded A is better than B. A beats B. Therefore my noted difference was the cause of the victory. That’s total b.s.

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  28. Andrew says:

    “Unlikable Red Sox flunked chemistry” by Jackie McMullan.

    http://espn.go.com/boston/mlb/story/_/id/7036983/underachieving-boston-red-sox-flunked-chemistry

    Oh man…

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  29. Jon says:

    Dave,

    Thank you for this post (and so many in the past). I have never commented on a post on any website; it is just not something I do. But this post made me realize why I ‘waste’ so much time reading Sabermetric articles. You have relieved a lot of guilt :)

    While I am here: was devastated to hear you hear have cancer. Take care and my best wishes to you and your family in this difficult time.

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