Stats lie. More accurately, they can be manipulated to support various different truths. And since numbers form the very bedrock upon which baseball was built, they are both easy to manipulate and impossible to escape. So when discussing even the most mundane measurements, it’s important to do so with proper perspective.
For instance, a batter donning a golden sombrero seems terrible in the context of that individual game. If he finished the given week batting .500 with no additional strikeouts, however, no one even remembers the poor performance. But even though the granular details are lost when we pan out to see things in broad scope, that doesn’t mean all stats carry equal weight.
What if that oh-fer occurs in the deciding game of a playoff series or the last game of the season with a division title on the line? The agnosticism of the aggregate isn’t swayed, but those moments feel bigger. That’s because they are bigger, because some at-bats and some games do matter more than others.
The Cubs scored 761 runs in 2018, so a single tally represents a mere 0.14 percent of that total. That’s virtually nothing, wholly insignificant in the grand scheme. But what if that one extra run had come in any of the first 16 innings of the second game of the season? The Cubs ended up losing 2-1 to the Marlins in 17 innings, so one run would have tipped the scales and upped their season total to 96 wins.
No Game 163. No Wild Card crapshoot. Earning the right to host to a playoff series. The entire narrative of the season may have turned on the axis of a single run. Which is why it’s not quite as simple as Joe Maddon saying he loves the taste of meatloaf, a reference to the Meatloaf song “Two out of Three Ain’t Bad.”
“They got us, but any time you ‘meatloaf’ the other team in a series, you’ll take it,” Maddon said back in 2015, a sentiment he’s since repeated. “Meatloaf tastes good all season long. By the end of the season, it might be your favorite meal of all time.”
Makes a ton of sense when you extrapolate that out to see a .666 winning percentage, the mark of a beast of a team that would win 108 games. Except the Cubs didn’t win that many games, whether due to injuries or to the perceived lack of urgency that we’ve already heard too much about this winter, and objects in their rearview mirror appeared far closer than they should have.
“Sometimes divisions aren’t lost on that last day of the season when you only score one run or you don’t get it in,” Epstein said back in early October. “Or they’re not lost in that last week and a half when the other team goes 8-0 and you went 4-3, you needed to go 5-2.
“Sometimes they’re lost early in the season when you have an opportunity to push for that sweep, but you’ve already won two out of three and you’re just not quite there with that killer instinct as a team.”
No better example of that exists than the Cubs’ four-game set at Pittsburgh in mid-August, a split that saw the visitors score exactly one run in each contest. The Cubs managed to win the first two games by identical 1-0 scores, then dropped the next game 1-3. Two out of three ain’t bad, but do you feel good about scoring three combined runs?
The Cubs would go on to drop the final game of the series by a 1-2 margin before traveling to Detroit and losing 1-2 in the opener. A subsequent seven-game win streak over which the Cubs scored 46 runs (6.6 R/G) pretty much erased any memory of the hiccup in Pittsburgh, but that’s kind of like the janky wheel on your shopping cart rolling true through a few aisles before wobbling again.
So two out of three ain’t bad, four out of six is pretty good, and six out of nine is downright nice. Thing is, those numbers are best celebrated in hindsight. You can’t take the first two in a series and then coast because you’re playing with house money. As Epstein reiterated recently, it’s not enough to simply show up and depend on talent to carry the day.
Hence the need to play each game like bats out of hell and make sure there aren’t any leftovers to throw out at the end of the season. Failure to do so could mean a lot more paradise by the dashboard lights of the RV for Maddon, whose schtick doesn’t quite harmonize with the tune Epstein’s been singing. But if the Cubs are winning and that urgency is evident, Maddon may just keep playing lunch lady and serving up meatloaf for a few more years.