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Anticipation and the Battle of the Beltways

Although the Battle of the Beltways may have “always been largely a media – and fan-driven creation” and not especially important to the players it’s also true that the Empire State Building and Eiffel Tower were largely worker-driven creations. It’s the fans who pay the salaries, the fans who fill the seats, and the fans who write and read blogs like this one…

The Nationals and Orioles are still 2nd and 1st in their divisions and still have winning records (if they lost them last night, something would be amiss!) for the first time in the inchoate series’ history. The Orioles have the lead, having taken 7 of 12 three-day match-ups with a 20-17 record to show for it, meaning that after last night’s loss it will be July at the earliest ‘til the Nationals can bring the contest level.

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Even if the Nationals had swept this weekend, taking the lead in the battle would warrant little enthusiasm in light of both teams’ numerous disappointments over the past six years (perpetual losing records, injured players, fire sales). So even though the series’ history may not contain much to be proud of – neither team has finished above .500 since they first met in 2006, though the Nats went 80-81 last year –with both teams playing so well, this weekend should have at least short-term significance for everyone, even the players!

I computed a simple index to determine the “anticipation” for last night’s game – a score based on the winning percentages of both teams – to show that even on an objective scale it meant a lot. Of the fifteen games played on the 18th of May, the Beltways contest had the highest anticipation score (slightly edging out St Louis versus LA). If last night’s game had had the average anticipation score of all past Beltway match-ups, it would have come in fourth from the bottom.

There’s even more excitement since both teams are playing over their heads, and thus over their Pythagorean expectations. Based on the number of runs scored and allowed by the two contenders, the Pythagorean expectation formula used for predicting win percentage (which it does very well at season’s end) suggests that the Nationals will end up with 7 fewer wins than their current pace implies, and the Orioles a full 15.

Everyone wants to be there when a high-wire act falls, but there is also a personal element to our fascination. As my editor and former high school rival Will Yoder said, “One team had a clear five-year-plan and the other threw up one morning and realized it had a winner.” For the 20-somethings who grew up in the area, the rivalry between the Nats and O’s has tested our allegiance, patience, and is now pitting the hard-won lessons of adulthood against youthful fancies. Yes, chicks love the long-ball (the Orioles lead the majors in home runs) but at some point you get too old for that sort of thing – a fan-driven realization to which we hope at least one person is paying attention.

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