For all the attention we devote to the concept of pressure in the sports world, it's a maddeningly elusive concept. There is so much that goes into it. Internal expectations. External expectations. The stakes at play. The unstoppable ticking of the clock. And context is big in this, too. As much as we love baseball and relish the potboiler that is the big league postseason, it's not the same kind of pressure that, say, a brain surgeon faces on a daily basis.
Of course, even in the case of our imaginary surgeon, we can't say how much pressure there really is. Perhaps he is such a cool character that working on another human's brain is all too routine. At least you'd hope so. But it's kind of the same in sports. What is a pressurized, stress-inducing situation to one athlete might be a source of pure exhilaration to another.
As we size up this year's big league playoff field, we can't say which teams feel or don't feel pressure and, if asked, all of them would probably say that they don't feel any. It's what you're supposed to say. What we can take a stab at is identifying which teams should feel the most urgency. It's clearly an external expectation, but really that's all we have.
Bill James has a system he developed that he called "happy years." The idea is to figure out which team deserves to win the title most in a given year. It's based on things you'd expect: How long it has been since a team won the World Series. How long since it won a pennant. And there is a "knocking on the door" factor that looks at how many good recent seasons a club has piled up without winning it all.
The system is a positive one. It's about helping us appreciate certain teams and deciding who we might root for if our primary team is out of the running. The system I present today is not a positive one. It's cynical. This system is a "you'd better win the damn thing already" kind of deal.