Anticipation, optimism run wild as MLB sets into motion

There's something in the air during baseball's opening week that thoroughly rejuvenates fans. It could be that they sense spring weather quickly approaching (Madison might be exempt from that). Or maybe it's because even elderly people are suddenly presented with the chance to wear their favorite teams' jerseys like they did back in the third grade. In my case, it was an excuse for my roommates and me to soak our apartment in the sweet aroma of delicious hot dogs. 

 

But in all seriousness, the beginning of the season provides a miraculous sense of optimism for all those who are emotionally invested in their teams. For a few days, even the lowliest of franchises (I'm looking at you, Nationals) are on the same level as the most highly regarded ones. And why shouldn't the fans be excited? By far the most appealing part of baseball is the wild unpredictability that shapes every season. 

 

This characteristic holds true not just for minor events, but also World Series championships. No team has won consecutive titles since the Yankees' three-peat from 1998 to 2000. And it seems that every year, it becomes increasingly difficult for a defending champion to duplicate its previous success. 

 

The craziness began in 2001, when the Mariners won 116 games and tied for the highest single-season total of all time. Seattle followed this achievement by barely escaping the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Yankees in just five games. In that same season, the Diamondbacks, who were only in their fourth year of existence as a franchise, beat the three-time defending champion, the Yankees. 

 

There's been plenty of parody since then. The Angels, Marlins, White Sox, Cardinals and Phillies were far from heavy favorites, but they won the World Series anyway. And let's face it—before 2004, any Red Sox title would have been deemed a shocker after such a historic tradition of collapses. 

 

Even recent losers in the World Series, such as the Rays, Rockies and Tigers have made surprising appearances. And for seven consecutive seasons, at least one Wild Card winner has made it all the way to the World Series. 

 

So what accounts for all this randomness? Length of season might be a major factor making the game an endurance contest. It's highly likely that the injury bug will hit your team at some point. Oftentimes, the healthiest teams enjoy the most success, even if they aren't necessarily the most talented. 

 

Teams tend to gain or lose their magic at crucial times. The 2007 Rockies are an excellent example of this. They made it to the playoffs after winning a wild card tiebreaker, and then used that momentum to win seven straight games and earn a trip to the World Series. Meanwhile, last year's Cubs followed an excellent regular season with three straight losses to the Dodgers and an abrupt exit from the playoffs. 

 

Further parody lies in the psychology of baseball, as a game of streaks and slumps that can strike players at any time. Last year, Indians pitcher Cliff Lee began the season in the minors after his 6.29 ERA in 2007. He finished the season with a 22-3 record, a 2.54 ERA and an AL Cy Young Award.  

 

Former Dodgers outfielder Andruw Jones signed a two-year $36.2 million contract in December 2007 after ten consecutive seasons of more than 80 RBIs and 150-plus games. Last season, Jones hit .158 with 14 RBIs in 75 games. The Dodgers released him in January. 

 

This season, I fully expect the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets, Phillies, Cubs, Angels and Dodgers, teams that continue to spend, to be in serious contention. But, I also think experts should pay closer attention to clubs with less star power, such as the Athletics, Diamondbacks and Twins. These are three well-run organizations without glaring weaknesses. If they're able to avoid the injury bug and get hot at the right time, these teams will have a lot of potential come October. 

 

Of course, if you're adhering to my system of unpredictability, the no-brainer pick has to be the Cubs. No World Series victory since 1908? It might finally be time for the most unlikely event to take place. 

 

Think any other sleepers will break through this year? E-mail Matt at mfox2@wisc.edu.

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