experience matters

Ben Lindbergh, a contributing writer at Grantland (btw, #freesimmons), published a story yesterday addressing and delivering fairly compelling rhetoric debunking the familiar tropes related to postseason baseball, which will ramp up in about a week. Thankfully, the one I particularly hold on to–great pitching, timely hitting–wasn’t put in his cross-hairs. I mean, really, when is that not true?

It was this one myth that caught my attention: “There’s No Substitute for Playoff (and Pennant-Race) Experience”.

Lindbergh writes:

. . . On the surface, the idea that playoff vets would be better prepared for October sounds plausible: Playoff pressure is intense, and young players who haven’t experienced it could conceivably have a hard time adjusting. Prolific postseason researcher Russell Carleton examined the issue last year, looking for any indication in the wild-card era of a difference in postseason performance among players who’d been there before. He didn’t find one, even at the extremes (October’s oldest hands or those in their first playoff game).

“There is no evidence that postseason experience (and I attempted five different definitions of ‘experience’) has any effect on players in the postseason over and above their previously established talent levels,” Carleton wrote. “The idea that postseason experience confers some sort of advantage on a player or team is not supported by the data. If it were true, we would see some sort of departure from what we would otherwise expect based on regular-season stats. It’s not there.”

This idea is not baseball-specific; no doubt if you are a fan of professional sports of any kind, you’re familiar with some form of the ‘experience matters’ idea. It certainly didn’t aid the Atlanta Braves during their reign atop the NL East, or the Vancouver Canucks during their time amongst the powers of the NHL’s Western Conference, the 1990s Seattle SuperSonics, the 15-1 Green Bay Packers in 2011 or the ’13-’14 Miami Heat.

Incidentally, one will notice that this idea fails to stretch into collegiate athletics, which seems to pull the curtain back on the trope for what it is. Yet, after the Wisconsin Badgers lost in the 2014 Final Four to Kentucky, what was my thought? ‘This experience is only going to make them better!’, all while neglecting the fact that the nearly infinitesimal amount of variables between last March and the next dance render any experience garnered from last year’s success meaningless. That said, the reality of collegiate sports’ temporal limitations still keeps us from thinking of the experience advantage. Any improvement to the team is intangible. Ultimately, any improvements are.

When we look at what players think, though, they’re not concerned about how old or young they are, they’re not intimidated by the opponent. They know something us myth-makers and superstitious armchair quarterbacks don’t: all they can do is play. This is their job and, when they play, they clock in and clock out like the rest of us. There’s no room for myth when you participate. Either you do, or someone else does.

Really, it’s a mutated recapitulation of the Protestant work ethic: those who work hard and have a track record of success are destined to salvation, whether it’s a championship title, a long-tenured employee earning a position of prestige or the proverbial elderly prayer warrior. Experience matters.

Except that it really doesn’t. When the Rally Monkey Angels won the World Series in 2000, it was their inexperience that fueled their success. When Tom Brady replaced Drew Bledsoe and began the Patriots dynasty, those teams and their coach were completely unaccustomed to success at the highest level. The Miracle on Ice gold medal winners in 1980 were exactly that. All we ought to see is the perfect confluence of talent, opportunity and any given person doing their best: to participate and let the drama unfold.

Those who would obsess over mythos do so in abdication of their role in the present: the young sow their wild oats in the expectation that that cannot and will not be taken seriously, the middle aged engage in a Sisyphean effort to advance ahead while elders are respected merely for their age and expect the world to cater to them. None of them are participating in anything but a perpetuated ruse, a myth spun to give people an elevated sense of themselves.

Myths are for those who would justify their existence on the sidelines, be they religious, political, social, economic or related to sport. Lots of experienced people have little to nothing to show for their experience, but even that beats having never stepped on the field.

Champions are champions not due to their experience, but because of what they have accomplished.


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