What is the proper adjective for a groundhog day greeting? Certainly not merry, happy, or anything approaching that genre of adjectives. Even if I wasn't one of the 100 million people in this country moving about through a healthy dose of winter vomit, I think I could safely say Groundhog Day is one of, if not the worst, holidays of the year. Unless you are actually in Punxsutawney (so I hear from people), what is there to like about this day? I associate the day with two things, completely arbitrary predictions and a seemingly endless cycle of hopelessness. Both of these bear some relevance to thinking about the Cleveland Indians.
My association of Groundhog Day with a never-ending misery comes mainly from the wonderfully dark Harold Ramis/Bill Murray movie of the same name. The weather at this time of year, with the novelty of snow and ice long worn off, doesn't help, of course, but it is really Bill Murray's morbid efforts at escape that come to my mind (If you have watched the film more than once, you have probably played the game of estimating how long Murray's character spent repeating that day - next time, try to estimate how many times he killed himself).
As a Cleveland Indians fan, there is something in this portrayal that seems familiar. It is not just the 63 years since the Indians won a World Series title, but the sense that the fates are aligned against the organization. The economy in Cleveland is terrible. The payroll for the team will likely be among the lowest, if not the lowest, in all of baseball. There is no hope of signing marquee free agents in the off-season, and depressingly little at keeping current young players more than a year or two into their free agent years. The Cavs have lost an astounding 21 games in a row (just over a quarter of the season). The Browns ended their season on a dismal 4 game streak (exactly a quarter of the season). The Indians, coming off back-to-back seasons with fewer than 70 wins, lost their final two games (an almost hopefully small number in comparison). So Cleveland, as a city, is on something like a 27 game losing streak.
The other association with the holiday, crappy predictions, should also not be hard to place. So Punxutawney Phil did not see his shadow this morning, Spring is near! How did we ever get that tradition? In the village in Georgia I spend my summers, one particularly drought-stricken summer an older woman in the community led all the children in the village through town, banging improvised drums and sticks, culminating in the cracking of a raw egg into the ground. It instantly started raining. I'm sure the ritual and the rain were in no way related, but sign me up, at least it involved eggs.
Now that we are moving past the prospect and player movement portion of the off-season, predictions for the coming season are about to come fast and furious. With Ryan's piece the other day, and mine before that, we are already well into the process here at LGT. I will boldly make the prediction here that 2011 predictions (or projections) for the Cleveland Indians will not be pretty. I think we should consider ourselves fortunate if any major publication gives us a reasonable shot at 80 wins. So it seems the Indians endless cycle is destined to continue apace. Maybe...
...maybe not. Baseball presents a fun statistical environment because there is so much quantitative material to work with, much of it conveniently packaged into nice binary outcome (win/loss, safe/out) scenarios. But all of those numbers, all of those scenarios bring with them a level of uncertainty. Amplify that uncertainty by a 40-man roster and a 162 game season (segmented into 9-inning affairs) and what you are left with is something of a mess. Certainly a lot of historical correlation between various payroll or talent estimators and wins, but an equally impressive lack of predictive quality. For a team like the Cleveland Indians, relying primarily on a battalion of young players and veterans recovering from injury, this reality becomes further exaggerated by the difficulty in developing individual player projections, let along team projections. Projection systems likely won't be wrong in putting the Indians mean expected win total somewhere near 70, but I'd guess the shape of the distribution associated with that expectation would be flat enough to make the number more or less meaningless. The success of the 2011 Indians is going to depend on factors that really cannot be estimated or projected or predicted that reliably.
And that is great. Whether the groundhog sees his shadow or not, winter does eventually end. Bill Murray does make it to Feb. 3rd. And while Groundhog Day may be a completely terrible day, it does signal the beginning of February. And February is when pitchers and catchers report. And that means spring training. And baseball. And summer. And hope. Even if the cycle does go on and on. Welcome groundhog day!