How do you predict a collapse?

While I started gathering thoughts for my post about Neal Huntington's future with the Pirates over the weekend, I kept getting stuck on the idea of how much blame a front office (or a coaching staff, or the players, or anyone really) should get for a collapse like the one the Pirates have endured this season. This is not to say that no one deserves blame for this sort of thin, this is to say that this kind of thing is not at all a normal event in baseball and  so while it's easy to say, "It's happened to Hurdle two years in a row, FIRE HIM!" or "It's happened to Huntington two years in a row, FIRE HIM!" I'm not at all certain that that's the right or best way to look at things. 

At the end of July, as the Pirates' play started to trail off a bit post-All Star break and some of the more skittish fans started to worry about the team collapsing, Rob Neyer looked at the chances that the team would fold up like they did in 2011 and came to this conclusion

Now, it wasn't difficult to predict that the [2011] Pirates would not finish in first place, or qualify for the postseason at all. It would have been exceptionally difficult to predict they would utterly collapse, going 22-46 the rest of the way and finishing 24 games out of first place. A collapse of that magnitude is moderately historic and simply cannot be predicted.

Which is why, without knowing anything else, we would not predict a similar collapse, or even much of a collapse at all, for this year's Pirates.

He then went on to detail all of the things that, to that point, made the 2012 Pirates better than the 2011 Pirates. In other words, we all knew the 2011 Pirates weren't as good as their 100 game record, but that collapse was still hugely unlikely. To that point we had every reason to believe that the 2012 Pirates were better than that, and even if they weren't that much better, well, that sort of collapse is difficult to duplicate. 

Of course, we know now that the Pirates haven't just duplicated last season's collapse, but surpassed it. Jayson Stark tells us that this is the worst collapse after 108 games in baseball history and frankly, by the time this wretched season is all said and done, it won't even be close. Two years in a row, I've tried to tell myself (and anyone that reads this site) that expecting the Pirates to collapse because they played over their heads through 100 games is just gambler's fallacy and two years in a row, I've been wrong. 

Instead of finding out some way to assign blame for this whole thing*, I just feel like throwing my hands up in the air and screaming "WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY?" There was no obvious reason for this collapse looming behind the scenes on game 101, there's no obvious link between what happened last year and what's happening this year. There must be some connection, of course, but it's not something that we can say, "THIS! THIS IS WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE AND ONCE THIS CHANGES IT WILL ALL BE OK FOR THE PIRATES!" To be honest, even if you believe that these successive collapses are entirely the work of a front office that is incapable of building a good roster or a manager that can't keep his players focused for 162 games, the statistical probabilities of this happening for two straight years are staggering.

I'm a scientist. I like real answers. I don't like ascribing things to curses or throwing my hands up and saying, "God hates Pirate fans." It's just that sometimes, the Pirates make it really, really hard not to do those kinds of things.  

*People are quick to do this right now, but I think that this is way more complicated than people are making it seem. Go back to the day of the Wandy Rodriguez trade and imagine that by the end of September Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke and Kevin Correia would all be mainstays in the rotation. Would you have known then that not only would James McDonald not find himself in the second half, but that Erik Bedard would be so bad the team would jettison him entirely and Jeff Karstens would get stuck in a weird injury limbo and AJ Burnett would regress back towards where you'd expect 35-year old AJ Burnett to be? And if you could have anticipated all of those things back in July, what else could you have done besides trading for Wandy Rodriguez and hoping that it was enough? That's not to let anyone off of the hook here, but to re-iterate that I think that this collapse is a complicated issue and when you try to assess jobs for managers and GMs as this season winds down that you have to look at a full picture of two years or five years and not assign undue weight to 50 games, even if those 50 games are awful, even if those 50 games are the freshest things on our minds. And again, this isn't me sugar-coating things for anyone or trying to duck handing out blame; I'm slow to base anything in baseball on the outcomes of 50 games, no matter how great or awful


About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.