Red Sox are not underdogs

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The Boston Red Sox won 108 games this year. They had the second-best run differential. They had the highest payroll in the game by tens of millions of dollars. They have one the of the largest fan bases in the game — which means a lot of revenue and a lot of people believing in them — and, of course, they have won the World Series three times in the past 14 years.

In light of that, it’s quite a thing to suggest that they are some sort of plucky upstarts, that they are some sort of underdog or that they are a team “nobody believed in.”

You ask for miracles, Theo, I give you the baseball commentariat:

Chris Russo is not alone. My Twitter mentions overnight and into today were filled with people casting the Red Sox as underdogs or even upstarts in some way or another. I found that all rather comical so I began engaging people about it to try to understand it. Once all of the dumb arguing had settled down — and my god there was a lot of dumb arguing about it — I found it breaking down roughly like this:

The genuinely anxious 

The most understandable people I encountered were Red Sox fans who just didn’t have confidence in the team. This is a very relatable feeling for a sports fan. While we crow and brag about the guys we root for to others, no one is as hard on a team as that team’s own fan base. It’s a familiarity thing. We know our team’s flaws and weaknesses better than anyone and, if we’re like most people, we tend to think about those far more than we think about our team’s strengths, especially come playoff time.

In Boston it’s way worse, I imagine, because in that town there’s a massive media-industrial complex fighting for angles, and when one is looking for a fresh angle one often looks to pick nits. The bullpen sucks. The manager is out of his depth. The GM is too passive and isn’t adding enough at the deadline or, alternatively, is too aggressive and is mortgaging the future. The rotation is about to be exposed. From what some Boston friends have told me, the entire summer was spent with talk radio and certain columnists fixating on the teams flaws, mostly because it’s kinda boring to talk about a team that wins almost every day. Which the Red Sox did.

In light of all of that it’s understandable to think that your victorious Red Sox stunned the world and beat the odds and all of that. Just know that . . . that’s not, actually, what happened. They were the best team in baseball from the start of the season until the end and, despite a couple of injuries and things, were always considered one of the top two or three most likely teams to win the World Series. To suggest otherwise is just not true.


The perpetually-aggrieved 

A smaller subset of fans will cast themselves as underdogs for less-relatable reasons, usually couched in grievance. They’re supremely confident in themselves and their team and they view it as an insult if the outside world does not feel the same way. This insult, over time, is forged into a victim mentality that casts their rooting interest into a besieged underdog for which victory is not just victory but triumph over impossible odds and against foes hellbent on their destruction. This, despite the fact, they are extraordinarily powerful and have advantages most other teams do not have.

There are analogies here to the situation of the New England Patriots of recent years. There are also analogies to our current political situation. In the interests of not getting into the 105th and 106th nasty internet fight I’ve been in today, I’ll leave that for another time.


Those lacking perspective

Many people who cast the Red Sox as underdogs did so because they believed Houston to be favored in the ALCS. And yes, some people did favor Houston. In early October’s panel of experts picked the Astros to win the pennant. ESPN’s panel narrowly picked Boston. It was sort of all over the map. If I had to guess based on the pre-series commentary I recall I’d say a few more people picked Houston than Boston, but it wasn’t overwhelming. It also shouldn’t matter a bit.

The Sox won 108 games. The Astros won 103 games. They were both very, very good teams and finding daylight between them was pretty hard. A lot of good arguments could be made that Houston was a stronger team entering the series and it’s certainly the case that last night’s matchup of Justin Verlander and David Price cast the Sox — but really just Price — as an underdog of sorts. But it was not a case of David vs. Goliath. Not even close. To suggest that it was because some pundits were leaning towards the Astros is to fundamentally misunderstand (a) that pundits are required to pick a winner and often do so in a contrary manner to get attention; (b) how good both of these teams were; and (c) what David vs. Goliath stories are all about in the first place.

The Astros vs. the Red Sox was not David vs. Goliath. It was Goliath vs. Goliath. Two of the best teams to ever meet in an LCS. One of ’em had to win. To say that either of these teams, if victorious, were the heroes in an underdog story is silly in and of itself, but to say so simply because 12 people with a media credential picked Houston while seven picked Boston, or whatever, is even sillier.


The gambling people

A lot of folks I encountered cast the Red Sox as underdogs because gambling lines favored the Astros. If the people in the previous group are getting it wrong because they’re not appreciating the degree of “underdog” the Red Sox were, these people are getting it wrong because they’re using an entirely different definition of the word “underdog” than most people use when talking about underdog teams.

Yes, you are technically an “underdog” if the betting lines favor your opponent, but that is not what most of us mean when talking about that concept. We’re talking about teams that no one thought had a chance. True Cinderella stories with the odds stacked against them and for which there is no rational basis to assume they have a real shot. This describes the 1968 Jets or Buster Douglas. This does not describe the 2018 Red Sox at all. If, before this morning, you suggested such a thing without reference to the betting lines, you’d be laughed out of the conversation.

Betting lines are created to do one thing: generate the most bets possible that break down in such a manner that, on balance, they benefit the bookmakers. Yes, they take all kinds of actual information into account like, say, whether Chris Sale might pitch in Game 5 or 6 or how the Astros do against lefties, but it’s granular stuff that no one, ever, talks about when they talk about the larger narrative arc of teams and whether or not they were underdogs in the sense that the non-gambling world talks about underdogs. Which is to say: they’re pretty meaningless for our purposes.

The Dodgers were favored by the oddsmakers to win the 2017 World Series over the Astros. They did not. No one called that a monster upset and no one cast the Astros as the heroes of an underdog story. For the very same reasons, no one should cast the 108-win Red Sox in that role. And even if they want to, well, I suppose they need to stop doing it now:

Beyond those three categories, I think, there is just this general need to graft a narrative on the postseason. I’ve fought the creating of such narratives for years, but it’s a battle I know I’ll always lose. We want to tell stories about teams and we will tell such stories. It just so happens that, in sports, one of the most appealing stories is the against-all-odds underdog, Cinderella story. I’d hope that, if we must traffic in narratives, we’d try to find better, more accurate narratives, but people will reach for that one every single time it’s available and, as here, even when it’s not really available. It stimulates the pleasure centers of our brain and appeals to the latent Just World Fallacy to which most of us ascribe and in which the big bullies always get their comeuppance at the hands of the plucky upstarts.

If the Brewers come back from being down 3-2 in the NLCS, you can bet you’ll hear it applied to them. For them it’ll be a multi-tracked underdog story, focusing on relative team strength but also on market size and payroll. If the Dodgers win, well, it’ll be pretty darn hard given their talent and payroll, but I suppose someone will try.

Maybe, if they try hard enough, they’ll even find a way to make Boston the underdog again, those odds I cited above — and every other consideration — notwithstanding.