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That’s baseball, Suzyn: On baseball’s innate unpredictability

For a game steeped in numbers like no other, baseball still remains, by and large, an unpredictable game. That’s what makes it so special.

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MLB: Los Angeles Angels at New York Yankees-Game 2 Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

If you had pulled me aside this time last year and told me that all three of Nestor Cortes, Clay Holmes, and Jose Trevino would be representing the New York Yankees, the best team in the league, at the All-Star Game, I probably would have laughed in your face.

In that scenario, the “best team in the league” label likely would’ve required a bit of a suspension of disbelief on my part as last season was, by and large, an exercise in miserableness and dysfunction. But with a talented core of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gerrit Cole returning in 2022, I suppose it would’ve been somewhat possible, if not particularly probable. In my mind, Cortés was fun to root for but nothing about his past performance or his stuff indicated that he’d be able to sustain such a high level of performance, Trevino was a platoon catcher on one of the worst teams in the entire league, and, to be entirely honest, I had never even heard of Clay Holmes. That's where the improbability in that scenario would lie.

Yet here we are, 96 games into the 2022 season, and that’s exactly how things have played out. The Yankees have the best record in the league and all three of the aforementioned players have each played a massive role in the team’s success this year. Boy, was hypothetical me ever wrong.

I’ve written about unpredictability quite a bit this year. I’ve already covered how remarkable it is to see Jose Trevino do what he’s doing, even if his bat has come crashing down to earth recently. I’ve also talked at length about how special it is that the Yankees are made up of guys, like Holmes and Cortés, who are getting second chances in the biggest market in the world and making it work. Hell, I’ve even openly admitted that I was very wrong about this team coming into the season. Just about the only angle that I haven’t written about, at least in terms of unpredictability, is a solo feature on Matt Carpenter’s career resurrection.

If you followed my writing back when I wrote more analytically-driven articles, or engaged in comments with me back when writing wasn’t my full-time job and I had time to peruse this site a bit more frequently, you’ll likely remember that I’m a big analytics guy. If baseball is my religion, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant are my religious scriptures. (Oh boy, I’m going to pay for that metaphor on Sunday...) In the offseason, I eagerly await all the various projections systems to release their projections for the season, and the FanGraphs and Baseball Savant browser tabs remain open from April until October.

Even in spite of my best efforts to prepare myself for the season and understand the results once it gets going, though, storylines almost always pop up that no one could’ve predicted. Each season, there is a handful of narratives that seemingly come out of nowhere, like a backup catcher and wayward relievers becoming All-Stars, or a 36-year-old whose career looked dead in the water suddenly becoming the best hitter on the planet. These are things that even the most dedicated projections systems cannot possibly account for. Go back and look at the preseason projections for Cortés, Holmes, and Trevino. I dare you.

Narratives like these are the reason that so many of us, myself included, keep coming back to baseball. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always incredible to see world-beaters like Judge, Stanton, and Cole do their thing, but there’s something so heartwarming about a scrappy underdog rolling up their sleeves and finally seeing everything click for them on the baseball field.

In the preceding paragraphs, close readers will likely notice that I used words like “suddenly” and “becoming,” or phrases like “out of nowhere,” to describe these storylines. That's because, for most fans, these narratives really do seem to just randomly pop up from time-to-time. It’s as if a switch goes on one day and they just decide they’re going to be very good at baseball from that point on.

In portraying these stories in this way, we inevitably end up waiting for the other shoe to drop. Still to this day, even after 188.2 innings pitched at an exceptionally high level, we have fans doubting whether this is the actual Nestor Cortés or not. These discussions happen less frequently for Clay Holmes, thankfully, but those rumblings started to climb back up to the surface when he found himself in a bit of a rough patch right before the All-Star break. Luckily for Jose Trevino the other options at catcher are not particularly good so these discussions have not really started swirling yet, but I imagine that a soft second half at the plate will fire them up again.

This is what makes talking about unpredictability so dangerous. What a lot of us don’t see or acknowledge in these discussions is the ridiculous amount of work that goes into making the unpredictable a thing for us to enjoy. Cortés didn’t just wake up one day and decide he wasn’t going to pitch to a 6.72 ERA anymore. Rather, he was in the lab every day to reinvent himself so he could succeed in the modern game.

Likewise, Holmes didn’t just crawl out of bed one morning and decide he was going to start throwing strikes. No, he tirelessly worked with his coaches to get to a point where he trusted his sinker enough to reinvent himself. Similarly, Trevino didn’t just decide he didn’t want to be a backup catcher anymore. Instead, he worked relentlessly in the offseason to reinvent his offensive game and transform himself into a viable option on both sides of the ball. Finally, Carpenter didn’t just roll off his couch one day and decide to be the best hitter to ever live. Rather, he quite literally travelled the country trying to revamp his swing and revitalize his career.

It’s a fact that baseball is unpredictable, and that’s one of the reasons I love this game so much. But to those of us paying attention, even the unpredictable stories don’t just happen by accident. They’re a testament to owning your failures, learning from the past, and being unafraid of reinvention. That, as the legendary John Sterling might say, is baseball, Suzyn. And we can all learn a thing or two from it.