- ESPN baseball columnist/feature writer
Former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus
Co-author of “The Only Rule Is It Has To Work”
The writer Kurt Vonnegut once took to a chalkboard to lecture on the simple shapes that most popular stories follow. In his first example — “Man in Hole” — a protagonist starts around the middle of the X-axis. As time passes on the Y-axis, he falls into a terrible hole — a line curves down to near the bottom — but then he gets out of it and ends up better off than he started. “People love that story!” Vonnegut said. “They never get sick of it.”
Vonnegut “didn’t care or know squat about sports,” except when he was writing cranky letters to the local newspaper about how “Little League baseball has wrecked the American supper hour.” The story shapes he drew in that lecture, though, could be seen as a precursor to a now-common visual in professional sports: the win expectancy graph, with its X-axis measuring a team’s fortunes across the Y-axis of time.
In a 2005 essay, Vonnegut ultimately suggested five story shapes, but postseason baseball shows us there are actually six. To be fair, one of them is so boring most people will turn it off early, so maybe it’s true that there are five good story shapes.
(Why did we specify postseason baseball? Because postseason baseball is the one time in the season when the majority of a game’s viewers don’t have a rooting loyalty. For a Padres fan watching a Padres game, there is no narrative shape, but only the pressing and immediate need to win every moment; that Padres fan’s graph is more like a cardiogram, and the tension comes from whether there will be a next heartbeat. But for the neutral fan, there’s narrative, which depends on buildup and payoff, on change and reflection.)
The wild-card round of this year’s postseason provided examples of all six game types — but, then, any collection of a dozen or so postseason games likely will, since there are only six basic games to pick from. These are the six win expectancy graphs you see in the postseason — and, in fact, see over and over and over again. All tables come from FanGraphs.
1. The Fall
Things are going fine — largely uneventful, peaceful — until one team commits a great sin, most often by allowing a crooked-run inning. (Sometimes the titular fall happens almost immediately, as in the book of Genesis or the Padres-Cardinals Game 1, above; sometimes it happens midstory, as in the case of Sisyphus or the Padres-Cardinals Game 3, here.) The equilibrium is broken, and the team that’s behind is thrust into an increasingly desperate push to undo the stain. It might take partial steps toward redemption — a run, perhaps; a rally, almost certainly — but, try as it might, it never erases the debt. Indeed, the gulf between the losing team and success often grows over the course of its attempts, as in the late innings of last year’s World Series Game 7:
The Bloody Sock game fits this shape:
This is probably the most common baseball game story, since scoring in baseball is rare enough that most leads hold. Have you ever noticed that a team that’s leading by three runs in the ninth inning brings in its very best reliever to protect the lead, but a team that’s trailing by three runs brings in its fifth-best reliever — even though the game is, theoretically, just as close (three runs) for both teams? That’s because inertia is the default expectation in baseball. The trailing team doesn’t use its relief ace because it knows it probably won’t come back, so allowing more runs probably won’t change the outcome.
The Fall is basically the One Bad Inning model of baseball/life. The moral of this story is how unforgiving baseball/life is.
2. Gradually and Then Suddenly
In this graph, the equilibrium between the teams holds the game taut for a long time. But equilibrium can’t hold in any system forever, and entropy — the gradual decline of all things into disorder — ensures eventual chaos. As the game progresses, the score might not change but the swings in win expectancy get larger. A one-out double in the eighth inning might cause a bigger spike than loading the bases in the first inning would have, and simply failing to score in a half-inning — especially after runners have reached — can create a sharp spike in the other team’s chances. When, finally, the game is determined, the relatively steady line jags all the way to one of the extremes — death, essentially.
A 13-inning, 1-0 game — as the Braves and Reds played (above) last week — is the purest, smoothest example of this story’s shape, which resembles Ernest Hemingway’s description of going bankrupt: “Gradually and then suddenly.” But anytime the teams stay within a run (maybe two runs) through the bulk of nine innings, sending things into a sudden-death atmosphere, you see the basic shape. The Trojan War — 10 years of siege, ending almost overnight with a single wooden horse — fits this shape. So does the Zack Britton-less wild-card game in 2016: mostly smooth, increasingly jagged, and finally over the cliff. The moral of this story is that most of a life’s energy is spent simply surviving. And that it’s a demand that gets harder and harder to meet.
3. The Countdown Clock
A baseball game was ordained to go nine innings, 27 outs — not one out longer or one out shorter. For the team that’s ahead, then, the late stages of a game are a matter of surviving one tentative out at a time, fending off a series of external threats while laboring through internal attrition.
In the game above, the A’s had a lead and they held the lead. That makes its shape similar — especially from the White Sox’s perspective — to The Fall. But while the lead in The Fall usually looks relatively sturdy, the lead in a Countdown Clock game is extremely fragile. The A’s fended off significant rallies in each of the final three innings, and ultimately had to call in a closer who had thrown 49 pitches just 24 hours earlier. If the A’s had to get 28 outs, rather than 27, they would quite possibly have lost.
The final game of the 2016 National League Division Series fit this shape beautifully: The Dodgers took a lead, brought in their ace closer Kenley Jansen to attempt a three-inning save, but ultimately had to turn to Clayton Kershaw — on no rest — to get the final two outs.
The moral of this story is that the difference between winning and losing, between success and failure, often comes down to arbitrarily defined boundaries.
4. The Comeback
Vonnegut would call this “Man in Hole,” and it’s simple enough: Start around the middle, dip down into hell, fight back and end up at the top. Really clever storytellers throw in a little bit of misdirection: They distract the viewer with one comeback, when it’s actually the second comeback that matters. The double comeback is actually a lot like the shape of Cinderella — a climb, a fall, a climb — but it tells the same basic story: A team is put into a severe predicament, is truly tested, and, after lingering in a state of agony for a painful stretch of the game, finds the resolve/morale/fairy godmother/deus ex machina necessary to pass the test. The Bullpen Cop Game was a comeback, and if you want to relive the joyful catharsis of bullpen cop’s hands to the heavens, you have to remember the three innings the Red Sox had spent trawling the bottom of the graph.
The book of Exodus is a comeback story. The Bartman Game was a comeback story, though it has been told primarily from the perspective of Pharaoh. The moral of the comeback story is that success isn’t a smooth line, that trials can bring out our best, that perseverance is worthwhile, etc. It’s the balm of hope.
5. The Back and Forth
At various points The Back and Forth will resemble a comeback, but the comebacks come so fast and furious that they cancel each other out. The overriding emotion of the game is that anything is possible. To the disinterested observer the drama changes over from seeing who will win and toward what will happen next. The 2014 American League wild-card game was a Back and Forth:
The moral of the Back and Forth is that the present is constantly painting over the past; the final thing you do might be the only thing that’s remembered.
6. The Blowout
What makes The Blowout different from The Fall is that, in The Blowout, all dramatic tension disappears. The win expectancy line literally flattens way before the game is over. There is, unlike The Fall, no hope of change, no real hope of redemption. It is the antithesis to the rags-to-riches story: rags to rags, riches to riches.
We don’t tend to like these stories. Nobody particularly wants to see a story where nothing changes and nothing ever will change. Hence, the ratings for the final innings of these games tend to stink.
The moral of the Blowout: On any single day, the best in the world can be the worst in the world.
Those are the six shapes. They manage to not feel repetitive. Within each of them are approximately 2 million details that add color and emotion to the games. And within the basic shapes are all sorts of tropes, like the manager who doesn’t go to his best reliever in the biggest spot. There are genre elements, like bullpen games or no-hit bids. There are ominous forces, like pitcher fatigue or a star hitter’s horrible slump, that create tense substories within the larger story shape. There are umpires in the role of wacky sidekicks. But basically, those are the stories.
Is it helpful to think of baseball games this way? To me, it is, because it corrects a fallacy in the way we think about baseball teams’ performances. We use the word “running” to describe a person in the middle of a run, or “traveling” to describe a person in the middle of travels. We use the word “losing,” though, to describe a team that’s behind — even though, these win expectancy graphs show us, the team that’s behind is often in the middle of winning.
By seeing the game as a story — with a shape and a conclusion — we can better understand what we actually saw. When the Padres trailed St. Louis in the sixth inning on Thursday, they weren’t losing. They were winning. You can see it at the end of the story: They won. Down 6-2 in the sixth inning, they were in the process of winning. What an incredible, unexpected, nearly heart-stopping route they took to get there. I love that story. I never get sick of it.
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