Monday, April 30, 2007

Too Soon?

Josh Hancock's death sucks. Sucks for his family. Sucks for his teammates. Sucks for anyone that knew and loved him, as anyone's death does for the people who are left behind.

But we're not those people, so we're allowed to reflect for a couple of moments and then get right back to it. We're allowed to silently wonder whether Hancock -- a mop-up reliever with a relatively short tenure with the team -- is worthy of the same kind of treatment front-of-the-rotation-starter Daryl Kile received at his untimely passing five years ago. We'll do it with the appropriate amount of respect, but we'll wonder.

We're also allowed to wonder -- at least until the autopsy results come back -- whether Hancock was driving drunk at the time of his accident. Hey, I don't know and you don't know either, and the last thing we should do is engage in innuendo, but the fact remains that the man hit a parked car at a high rate of speed late on a Saturday night, so such speculation is not baseless. Let's just wait for the evidence to find out.

But what I'm wondering most about -- and again, we can wonder this because we didn't know the guy outside of the context of our television sets -- is what his death means for the Cardinals. Are they going to be so shell-shocked that they'll fall off of their already below-average pace for a while and wind up too far behind Milwaukee or whoever to catch up? Will they rally around the tragedy and win one for the, er, Hancocker? Normally we'd be left to wildly speculate, but when it comes to the Cardinals, there is relevant data to be considered.

When Daryl Kile was found dead on June 22, 2002, the Cardinals stood in first place in the NL Central with a record of 40-31, for winning percentage of .563. After a ten game stretch of .500 ball during which I previously noted the Cards looked lost, they went on a relative tear for the rest of the year, going 52-29 (.641), to finish the year at 97-65 (.598) and an appearance in the NLCS.

It's important to note that they did this despite the fact that the pitchers who replaced Kile -- some combination of Travis Smith and Chuck Finley -- performed worse than Kile did before heading off to baseball Valhalla. In the case of Smith, who got ten starts or so before they traded for Finley, far worse. I don't tend to believe in most inspirational hoodoo, and there may be several reasons apart from inspiration why the Cardinals rallied post-Kile, but they obviously didn't crumble despite having a pretty good excuse to do so.

Which brings us to Hancock. While his loss will no doubt hurt his teammates, the cold reality of the situation is that it's an emotional loss, not a baseball loss. Like I said, he was a more or less league average mopup man whose job it was to come into games the Cards are already losing to save the better arms for games that could be won. There are no shortage of guys who can fill that role, and there is no reason to expect that St. Louis will lose any more games without Hancock than they would have with him. Given their reaction to Kile's death, the Cards, if anything, might expect to play better in the wake of this tragedy.

I offer this because if the season ends with the Cards missing the playoffs, there will be many in the media who, out of sympathy over Hancock's death, will give them the benefit of the doubt. Don't let them that get away with it. If the Kile-effect holds in St. Louis -- and given the same manager and a handful of the same team leaders (Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds, Isringhausen) there's no reason it shouldn't -- the Cardinals shouldn't be expected to bottom-out simply as a result of Hancock's death. The fact is that once you get past Pujols, the few Cards who aren't over the hill aren't very good. St. Louis sits at 10-13 and are 4 1/2 games behind the Brewers, who look poised to run away with the division.

If they rally? Well, maybe I'll have to reassess my stance on inspirational hoodoo.