Championing losers: when underdogs are the favorite


How does Boston get to be both the favorite AND the underdog?

The New York Yankees have the best record in baseball, were the first time to lock up a playoff berth, have had a stranglehold on the #1 spot in power rankings for weeks, and leads the league in runs, hits, HR, RBI, OBP, OPS, SLG, walks, and total bases.

But everywhere I look, someone’s telling me how insecure I should be about my team.

From ESPN:

Boston is really the only team heading into the postseason that you can look at and say, “This team is ready for the playoffs.” Aside from the middle relief, which hasn’t been too good, Jon Lester is pitching well and Daisuke Matsuzaka has looked good. The Sox look to me to be the one, of all the teams likely headed to the postseason, that is the most dolled up and ready to play in the playoffs.

From Fox:

The Angels — despite a 1-9 record against Boston in the postseason since 2004 — will not be easy, and naturally, neither will the Yankees, their presumed opponent in the LCS should they get there. But even for the three division winners, the most dangerous AL entrant in the 2009 playoffs might be the Red Sox. Wild card, indeed.

It reminds me of last year’s Super Bowl when the Steelers were all but discounted just because no one was giving the Cardinals enough credit. The problem with that is that everyone overcompensates for the “overlooked team” and hence consequently all but discredits the proverbial “favorite.” It’s like osmosis of fandom.

Team support moves from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration, in an effort to maintain equilibrium.

The Steelers ended up winning that game, and people still seemed shocked. Hey, they were a favorite for a reason. More importantly, they got there for a reason.

Does the sports world think the Yankees clinched a playoff berth first and won 97 games based on their good looks? They play in one of the toughest divisions in the league, barring the Orioles, and exploded in the second half to not only overcome a 3-game deficit to the Sox, but also surge so persistently that they pulled away with the division despite having lost the first 8 games against their AL East rivals.

Much has been made of the 3-headed rotation beast leading the charge for Boston. Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, and Clay Buchholz are being touted as the second coming of Christ. (As a side note, I feel like the standards for which we apply this expression are on the decline.)

Lester and Beckett are certifiable dealers, no question. I’m reluctant to concede Cheekbones is of equal caliber, though. His extremely average numbers only a month ago have been swept under the rug in favor of extolling his September stats (4-0, 1.73). Which means that we’re completely ignoring his indelibly shaky past on account of his numbers against Tampa Bay and the Orioles.

I swear to God, I have NEVER seen a faction more predisposed to cherry picking data than Boston sports fans.

Say we assume that Buchholz’s September numbers are enough to characterize his overall value. Then shouldn’t be the same be said for the fact AJ Burnett’s last start was an 11K gem against a formidable division leader? How is that not just as acceptable a sample size?

For some reason, the Sox’s bullpen is lionized like it’s going out of style, but I’m still trying to figure out where the overpowering, fear-inspiring dominance is coming from exactly. Mariano Rivera is a much better closer than Jonathan Papelbon. This is not up for debate. Phil Hughes is as good a set man as they come. Alfredo Aceves and Phil Coke…not that reliable, but decent supplements to round out the pen.

Billy Wagner is a joke to me. Daniel Bard is possibly the most over=celebrated rookie fastballer I’ve ever seen play the game. As for the Manny DelCarmens et al, well, I don’t think that exactly gives Boston any kind of leg up. They have about 912 different relievers, and the Yankees have seen them all in the span of one game. They’re good. But I’m not ready to start gnashing at my fingernails just yet.

Everyone loves to hate the Yankees, and everyone loves to act like there are valid reasons for this beyond basic schaudenfraude. Which is all it is. Plain and simple. They buy their team, overrated, steroids, etc etc. It’s all ridiculous. Antagonists want the Yankees to lose because hatred is the coward’s revenge for being intimidated.

They want them to lose because everyone hates the favorite, and champions the underdog. I don’t know if I even have to really spell out the completely contradictory nature of billing Boston as both an underdog and favorite. Haters really will not be slowed by logic.

Lakers. Patriots. Yankees. Duke. USC. Always favored, always despised. But consider the fact that you’re not a favorite unless you’re in the upper echelon. You’re not in the top unless you’ve worked hard and cultivated talent and skill. The favorites are up there for a reason.

But we hate them anyway. Sports fans have undertaken an eternity of sisyphean tasks–but unlike the Greek myth, our interminably cyclic frustrations are completely self-inflicted.