The Power of Expectations

“Oft expectation fails, and most oft where most it promises; and oft it hits where hope is coldest; and despair most sits” – William Shakespeare

If you’ve ever read the magnificent Joe Posnanski (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you’re probably familiar with his patented movie rating scale. The first time I read about it, I was blown away – the concept is so simple and elegant, yet it captures the intricacies of expectations and how they influence our final opinions of movies, books, beers, musics, video games, first dates, and yes, baseball players. Let’s take the M. Night Shyamalan film “Lady in the Water” for example. If you rented the movie after watching “The Sixth Sense”, you’d obviously have high expectations for the film – maybe a 3 1/2 to 4 star rating. And well, it turns out the movie was nothing like what you were expecting; it wasn’t a thriller or suspense story, but more something like a fairy tale for kids. To you, the movie was a flop – a one star movie in the end. Four stars minus one star gives you a negative overall movie experience.

But suppose you entered watching that same movie with different expectations. I’d watched little Shyamalan before watching “Lady in the Water”, and I’d heard from others that the movie was a disappointment. I was expecting something like a 1/2 star performance, but hey, the girlfriend wanted to watch it so we did. I wasn’t expecting a thriller or suspense movie, so the movie struck me as actually quite fun. I’d rank it a two-ish star movie in the end, giving me a positive movie experience. My expectations were lower than the quality I received, so it made the movie fun to watch.

It’s an odd coincidence that when I first read about Joe Poz’s movie system, I was studying abroad in Denmark. The Danes are masters of low expectations; their entire culture is built around “Jantelov“, the idea that nobody is better than anyone else. If you succeed and admit it, you’re ridiculed and held in contempt. And if you talk to a Dane, they’ll constantly remind you of the fact that their nation is no great shakes.* If you take a look at their nation’s history, you can understand why. They’ve lost every war they’ve been involved in since Viking times, their nation has shrunk continuously for the past 200 years, and their land is cold, dark, and uninspiring for 11 1/2 out of 12 months every year. Heck, the most cocky thing you can find in the entire nation is Carlsberg’s (their beer’s) slogan: “Probably the best beer in the world.” And even then… “probably”? What advertising agency over here would ever approve of such ambiguity? Danes are the kings of schadenfreude.

*My host family commented at one point that the war in Iraq probably wasn’t going to end well since the Danes were allied with the US. “We’ve lost every war we’ve been involved in – sorry, but it doesn’t look good for you.”

And yet, in multiple studies over different time spans, the Danes have been ranked the happiest nation in the world. Not who you would have expected, huh? In classic form, the Danes don’t have a great answer as to why – they just shrug their shoulders and say that they’re really not that happy. The weather stinks, their taxes are too high – jantelov all over again. The best answer I’ve ever heard came from one of my professors there; she claimed that if you were never expecting anything good to happen to you, you’d always end up pleasantly surprised.

What does any of this have to do with baseball? As fans, everything.

“The best things in life are unexpected – because there were no expectations.” – Eli Khamarov

Expectations color our interpretation of events all the time, whether we consciously realize it or not. A strikeout by Evan Longoria with runners in scoring position is viewed differently than a strikeout by Reid Brignac in a similar situation. The reason? We expect great things of Longoria – he’s our Run ProducerTM, after all – while Brignac is a much less powerful hitter. It’s the difference between expecting a four-star movie versus expecting a two-star movie, but only getting a one star. I’d be disappointed in both outcomes, but more disappointed by Longoria.

Similarly, take a look at the season Ben Zobrist is having right now. If you expected him to produce like last season and hit 25-30 home runs again, you’d be very disappointed in him right now. Only 5 home runs? Only 41 RBIs? Ugh, that’s a negative movie experience right there. But instead, what if you’d taken a look at all the available information on Zobrist and painted a more realistic picture of his abilities? Last season’s output was great, but his career numbers suggest he’s more of a .280-.290 average, 15-ish home run guy that will walk a ton, hit lots of doubles, and play well above-average defense. If that’s what you expected, then you’d have no reason to be disappointed; Zobrist is playing just as you’d imagined and is contributing value to the Rays.

For another example, take B.J. Upton. If you’ve read my recent series previews over at NESN and Twinkie Town, you know already what I’m going to say. Upton has had high expectations plaguing him his entire career. He was a top-rated prospect with all the tools in the world, and it’s tough not to look at those old scouting reports, Upton’s 2007 season, and Upton’s brother (Justin Upton) and get incredibly frustrated. Why can’t you be that good, BJ? Why can’t you live up to all the hype? You have all these tools – why aren’t you better?

In many ways, BJ Upton’s 2007 season was one of the worst things that could happen to him. His .300 average, 24 home run season was fueled by two unsustainable rates – a .393 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) and a 19.8% HR/FB rate. Upton strikes out too much for him to be a .300 hitter; his true-talent level is more in the .240-.260 range. He also isn’t a 20+ home run guy, but more like a 15 home run hitter that will also hit 35 doubles and a handful of triples. He walks a lot, steals lots of bases at a high success rate, and plays above-average defense in center field. He’s not the 5-6 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) monster we were expecting, but instead a 3 WAR player. Is that valuable? That sure as heck is, but it’s tough to see that sometimes when our expectations have blinded us.

It’s easy to let our expectations get carried away during small stretches of games, so it’s good to give yourself a dose of realism every now and then. Before you lambaste a player for being a disappointment, check to see if it’s the player that’s failing or merely your expectations. Sometimes it’s tough to disentangle the two.

“Anger always comes from frustrated expectations.” – Elliot Larson

Piper was the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library.

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Cork Gaines
13 years ago

B.J. Upton sucks.

13 years ago

It’s safe to say that Korey Patterson failed both.

13 years ago

No wonder socialism works so well in Scandinavia, they strive for mediocrity from birth.

13 years ago

I’m failing to see the point of this post. You’re trying to help us find the silver lining in underachievers? If the world were fair, there would be no guaranteed contracts and the underachievers you’re so fond of would be out of a job instead of raking in millions of unearned dollars per year.

Carson Cistullimember
13 years ago

Schu: I believe the point — or, one of the points — is to demonstrate how that term “underachiever” might have more to do with the person using it than the one it’s intended to describe. We’ve assumed BJ Upton would be great because of his pedigree and his 2007 season. But he’s revealed himself to be something less than that. What if we’d had no expectations of him? We’d have been pleasantly surprised by his 2007 and content with the rest of his career.

In fact, research suggests that personal happiness — once one is freed from immediate concerns like food and shelter — is much more strongly tied to expectations than anything else. Barry Schwartz discusses this in his TED Talk — in particular, the joy of being pleasantly surprised — but the idea can be traced to Epicurus (and maybe earlier).

13 years ago

“In fact, research suggests that personal happiness — once one is freed from immediate concerns like food and shelter — is much more strongly tied to expectations than anything else. Barry Schwartz discusses this in his TED Talk — in particular, the joy of being pleasantly surprised — but the idea can be traced to Epicurus (and maybe earlier).”

Then one should strive to be an overachiever that never has to worry about paying his rent or filling his belly 😉

But yes, I understand that he was saying expectations were set too high for Upton based on his 2007 season, and I agree. I happen to be one of the lucky few baseball fans that doesn’t get caught up in player names or who invests any emotion into said names. I’m here strictly because I have a sick love for inane statistics that I can play with. It’s the engineer in me. Because of this, I can easily discount Upton’s 2007 as an aberration and move on, so it didn’t apply to me…

Anyway, the point I was trying to make, and why I appear to have gotten so worked up, is that Steve seemed to have been promoting a life outlook that is thoroughly pessimistic. My grandfather left Sweden precisely because he wanted the optimism and hope that this country offered him and which was frowned upon in his own small village. It’s the libertarian in me that rebelled against the mass social conformity, coupled with societal ostracism for those that deviate, that he described as the normal state for Danes.

Michael Lorri Scioscia
13 years ago

I really like this piece, Steve. I’m guilty of being sucked up by my own expectations. I expected Howie Kendrick to be a hitting .310-.320(I know batting average is not the ultimate factor but I’m just using it as an example) this year with a higher on base percentage. Weird things can happen. He is in his prime or best years or should hit it and he’s a pretty solid player but a couple years ago I was making Howie out to be a guy that would be a 3.5-4.5 win second basemen and have seasons like Cano. He can have a season or seasons where everything goes right, no doubt but I placed my expectations higher than it should for him.