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Desperation and Defeat

   by Bryan Leonard - 07/28/2006

Desperate sports teams are easy to spot. And they often pay the price of desperation with a big loss, or several losses. They are easy to spot. You might say the Buffalo Bills were desperate (or delusional) a year ago when they anointed J.P. Losman as the starting quarterback after running veteran Drew Bledsoe out of town. Losman was completely untested as a pro quarterback when the Bills announced he was No. 1 and they had total confidence in him.

They were the only ones who had confidence, as Losman quickly lost his when Buffalo started 1-3 straight up and against the spread. The passing offense had 164, 100, 36 and 64 yards in those four games! Desperate organizations, coaches or managers make up reasons as to why they think what they’re doing is a good thing, even if it flies in the face of reason. It’s up to the sports handicapper to examine the reasons more so than listening to the explanations.

One act of desperation that jumped out at me this baseball season was when the Mets starting pitching got decimated with injuries in May. One guy they brought up to fill the bill was 33-year old Jose Lima, who had been an awful starter the previous four years. I wondered why on earth the Mets would even give him a shot? Lima was pounded in a 13-6 loss in his first start, giving up 4 runs in 4 2/3 innings. His next start: 5 runs allowed in 4 2/3 innings. This was followed by a start where he allowed 5 runs in 5 innings in a 13-3 loss to Atlanta. Three losses in three starts, allowing 9.3 runs in three games!

Because those positions, quarterback and starting pitcher, are so important, it’s very easy to identify desperation spots by teams. It’s less obvious, and less important, with other players on a team. One reason is that football teams generally have enough depth at wideout, offensive line, or even running back, is that a backup can come in and perform fairly well. Those players don’t touch the ball every play, either, like a quarterback.

In baseball, an outfielder who can hit may replace a star player, but he will only bat 4 times in a game and have a handful of defensive plays. A team can get by and not be at a huge disadvantage for a few games. A starting pitcher, however, touches the baseball every pitch. And when the talent drops from a quality starter to a Triple-A kid, or a has-been guy like Lima, the dropoff can be large and felt right away.

The Tigers lost starter Mike Maroth early this season and were forced to start Zack Miner. In his first start, he could only go 4 innings (a loss), and the Detroit bullpen was forced to use 5 relievers. It was Miner’s major league debut. You can see how a desperation start like that can not only hurt a team one game (a loss), but by taxing the bullpen it can hurt a team the next few games. That loss started a 3-game skid for the Tigers. Desperation and defeat often go hand and hand.

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