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Doctor Strangeglove: On the Dangers of Expecting Victory

Like most of you, I suspect, I follow more than one sport, so this week brings heightened importance for me not only as the Phillies’ season descends into the depths of June, but the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the most prestigious men’s soccer tournament in North America, kicked off this week. It ought to be fun, watching the U.S. national team together in its strongest configuration for the first time in nearly a year, with Donovan, Dempsey, Howard, Bradley, etc., playing in a tournament of the utmost importance. But it’s not. You see, there is much at stake in this tournament–two more years of bragging rights over archrivals Mexico, the sense of continued progress of American soccer, and a berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup, and the Americans are overwhelming favorites, particularly considering the tournament is being played in the United States. The U.S. hasn’t finished worse than third since 1985, and has won three times in the past five installments.

So, an important competition, played on home soil, with our team favored to win ought to be fun, right? Well, it’s not. It’s terrifying, more than anything else, because anything but a victory, and a convincing victory at that, would be considered a disappointment. I can’t speak for the American soccer public as a whole, but I, for one, am looking forward to giving Mexico another black eye, another crack at Spain and Brazil in 2013, and the continued evolution of the most popular game on Earth in the the greatest nation on Earth. None of that happens if the Yanks lose this month, and so the expectation of greatness dilutes the enjoyment of same when it comes, and anticipation is counterbalanced by fear of losing what you never had in the first place.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

I’ve been fascinated all season with the perception that this Phillies team is any less great, or formidable, than the four playoff teams that preceded it. I don’t believe that it’s true, at least not through the end of June 9. Consider the following: 2011: 37-26, 1st place by 2 games; 2010: 31-26, 2nd place by 2 games; 2009: 33-23, 1st place by 2 games; 2008: 39-26, 1st place by 3 1/2 games; 2007: 32-30, 3rd place, down 5 games. Not a whole lot of difference, right? Where there is a difference is in run scoring and run prevention. In 2007, the Phillies scored 892 runs, a phenomenal total. In 2008 and 2009 that number dropped to 799 and 820, and in 2010 to 772. In 2011, the Phillies are on pace to score less than 650. But on the other hand, the Phillies allowed 821 runs in 2007, 680 in 2008, 709 in 2009, and only 640 in 2010. In 2011, that number is on pace to fall to about 550.

This is because the resources that once went to Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth are now being allocated to Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, and Roy Halladay, and Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard, the offensive backbone of the team, are battling age and injury, as mortal men are wont to do. But you know that already, and the records show that the trade has been, more or less, an even one. So why aren’t we having as much fun?

As it turns out the 2011 Phillies are not worse than their predecessors so much as they are different. John Gonzalez of the Inquirer pointed this out more succinctly in a column earlier this week, that a team we always assumed would be built on offense, and has been built on offense as far back as the 1920s, is no longer a juggernaut, but a pitching-and-defense team. It’s sort of jarring, I’ll grant you, when you go to sleep with the 1975 Reds and wake up in the morning with the 1965 Dodgers. We have, in our minds, an image of the Phillies as mashers, winning games 11-5 and 12-8 and staging late-game heroics. Well, those days are long gone, and if a game is 2-0 in the fourth inning, odds are that game will stay 2-0, or close to it by the end. Or so it seems.

Not only is it unfamiliar, it’s decidedly less exciting and dramatic, particularly when you’re treated to so many phenomenal starting pitching performances that they stop being special, as we have. Or if lists like these don’t make your innards tingle: NL SP leaders in K/BB ratio: 1) Roy Halladay 2) Cole Hamels 3) Cliff Lee. NL SP leaders in xFIP-: 1) Roy Halladay 2) Cole Hamels 3) Cliff Lee. NL SP leaders in fWAR: 1) Roy Halladay 2) Cole Hamels 3) Daniel Hudson 4) Cliff Lee. The NL pitching leaderboards have taken on an almost pornographic quality, but that doesn’t really matter, emotionally, when you’re sitting through nine innings of the Phillies being tragically unable to put inferior teams to bed.

Then there’s the original point: when victory is expected and surprise is eliminated from the equation, the inevitable reward is less enjoyable. The 2011 Phillies were seemingly handed the NL pennant the day they signed Cliff Lee. A World Series victory is expected–anything else would be a disappointment. You can see why this wouldn’t exactly be fun. So for those of you who were hoping to recapture the success of 2008, you may be in luck, because these Phillies are quite good. But for those of you hoping to recapture the excitement of 2011, that just may not be in the cards.

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