9/29: The Collapse of the Boston Red Sox

In the wake of one of the strangest nights in my life as a Red Sox fan, I have to ask, “Why?”

The question is not rhetorical expression of despair, as in “Why is baseball so cruel?”  It’s a real question: “Why did the Red Sox collapse?”

It’s easy to come up with quick answer.  Injuries, poor conditioning, bad free agent signings, and lack of clubhouse leadership are all popular explanations.  Many will propose a combination of causes.

And it is also likely that some people will throw up their hands and declare that the reason cannot be found, because baseball defies reason.  Such is the greatness of baseball, they might say.  I am not one of those people.  In a few weeks, though, once I have entered the acceptance phase, perhaps I will be able to appreciate that perspective.

In the FiveThirtyEight Blog at the New York Times, Nate Silver crunched the numbers to determine the likelihood of the Red Sox missing the playoffs in such agonizing style.  In a calculation that was not “mathematically rigorous,” he determined “a probability of about one chance in 278 million.”

With odds like those, Silver speculates that some other factors may be involved in the latest Sox meltdown.  I would have to agree.  In this age of advanced statistics, when sabermetricians are ensconced in baseball’s front offices and celebrated in films like “Moneyball,” we should be able to empirically investigate why one team manages to defy all expectations.

I know where to start: stress.  Though it’s not an original explanation, the idea that pressure could be the root of the Red Sox’ woes jibes with their playing environment, where the weight of sports history, regional angst, and the local media can be overwhelming.  It also might explain player underperformance — see the Yerkes-Dodson law — and the large number of broken-down bodies.

How to measure stress?  Blood pressure and cortisol levels come to mind.  Players could also fill out questionnaires assessing anxiety.  Of course, the players’ union may not approve such measures, given how drug testing has been so fiercely contested.  Also, athletes may be loath to dignify the notion that stress affects their job performance.  Nonetheless, I still think it would be interesting to compare the subjective experience of playing in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium as opposed to say, St. Petersburg’s Tropicana Field, where the Rays might benefit from the breezy Florida vibe.

My point is not to invite pity for the Red Sox, a collection of millionaires, nor to excuse their futility.  The results would be just as interesting if there’s no demonstrable difference in stress.  Maybe there’s some other reason.  Either way, I can’t believe the answer lies in dumb luck or the resurfacing of a curse.  I can only hope that cold, hard facts might alleviate my own stress over the cruelty of the baseball gods.