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The Great Momentum Debate Round 5
| May 20, 2009
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First of all, I want to say great work, Adam. Thanks for compiling some data on this. However, I'm not sure if this particular study is 100% legitimate because baseball in September is pretty drastically different than baseball in October, especially regarding the pitching. Either way, it gives us a little more insight into the nature of momentum. Second, I just want to clarify a couple of things. I do realize that baseball is less of a momentum-based game than any other major American sport. Success one day does not preclude failure the next day. Your team could be on a 10 game winning streak, but if they're slated to face Roy Halladay or Johan Santana the next day, their odds of winning are significantly lower than 50%. Here’s the difference, though. A losing team says to themselves, “Oh crap, we have to face Halladay.” A winning team says “Halladay’s one tough mofo, but we can handle him.” To me, that’s where the momentum lies. Maybe you give yourself a 30% chance of winning instead of a 25% chance of winning. Also, regarding my statement about a #3 pitcher having a good game because his two predecessors had good games…I was not trying to imply that any statistical trend exists here, especially over the long run. In fact, I’m pretty confident that a statistical trend does NOT exist. I was merely attempting to provide examples of individual cases where game-to-game momentum MIGHT affect the outcome for a player with the correct mindset. I’ll use basketball as an analogy. If a player gets a block on one end of the court and then hits a transition 3-pointer four seconds later, that’s a positive momentum swing. This doesn’t imply any statistical correlation between blocking shots and hitting 3-pointers, but it still has significance as an individual event. It’s the same with my example. And Eugene, I really think that you are off-base when you say that players are primarily motivated by the spectre of a big contract looming in the future. Yes, I’m sure that there are certain players who just want to hit a home run every at-bat because they know it could lead to more money, but most people need more than that. Remember, we’re not talking about robotic hitting and pitching machines, we’re talking about human beings with emotions. Most people, in all walks of life, don’t get up in the morning and say “I need to work very hard today because it might lead to a raise.” Motivation comes in the smaller things in life. I’d hazard to guess that the vast majority of Major Leaguers are more concerned with winning a World Series than hitting 40 home runs or striking out 200 batters. After all, players get big contracts because of impressive statistics in every sport, not just baseball. Following your line of thinking, the Clippers would play with as much energy as the Cavaliers, and the Islanders would try just as hard as the Red Wings, even after post-season elimination. But that’s simply not the case. When the team’s success goes out the door, players tend to go flat. Shouldn’t Kyle Okposo have been skating his butt off to score 30 goals this year? As for your claim that hard work is only contagious among casual players, well, that’s ridiculous. Teams that are top-loaded with quick, high energy guys simply play a more respectable style of baseball. Watch the Angels or the Twins and see if you notice any guys not beating it down the first base line. This is a philosophy and, in part, caused by guys like Chone Figgins, Maicer Izturis, Denard Span and Nick Punto. But I digress, back to the discussion at hand. As I said before, winning breeds more winning. Players on a winning team wake up in the morning and they know they’re going to win. They take better batting practice. They focus better. They get a bigger lift from their home fans, because crowds like to see good baseball being played. All of these things represent the potential for momentum from success. As Rahul said, going on a marginally long winning streak is pretty much random. He’s right. I’m not concerned with streaks. For whatever reason, we like it better when a player hits in 30 consecutive games than when he hits in 49 out of 50. HOWEVER, I sincerely believe that a team firing on all cylinders is much more likely to go 7-3 than 4-6 in its next 10 games, and vice versa. And one more thing, if there’s no such thing as momentum in baseball, then why do the players seem to be convinced otherwise? How many times have you heard “Yeah, we were struggling out there but when _______ got that home run, it really have us a shot in the arm.”? Or how about “Well, we’ve been on a roll recently and I just wanted to pitch my best game to keep that going.”? I realize that players are not statisticians, but they are the people who know the game best, who live and breathe baseball. And they all seem to believe in some sort of momentum on an inning-to-inning and game-to-game basis. Try telling a Major League baseball player that each game is essentially a coin flip. He’ll laugh at you. For me, that’s enough evidence in and of itself.
Share Your Thoughts
Rahul | May 21, 2009, 1:14am
Jay, I agree that statistics don't always tell the full story. And I also don't think anyone here is demanding statistics for you to prove the existence of momentum. We're all just asking for some kind of tangible, quantifiable evidence.

Jay Sage from WVBR | May 20, 2009, 8:45pm
Well yeah, of course it balances out in the long run, that's the Law of Large Numbers. It's one of the crazy things about baseball...a hitter can line out sharply to 3rd and feel cheated, and then get a bloop single the very next at bat. It all evens out. There is negative momentum just like there's positive momentum. But the point I'm trying to push across is that there IS momentum, even on a short term basis. As for the playoffs, I don't really know. It's definitely a different monster than the regular season. You're dealing with the best teams in baseball squaring off against each other, which lends itself to parity in the first place. When it's crunch time, rotations are essentially boiled down to the top 3 guys. Consider the 2001 World Series. The Yankees had all the momentum in the world after game 5, and yet they were staring down the double barreled shotgun of Schilling and Johnson. And like I said above, momentum doesn't necessarily give you an edge against a dominant pitcher. In the playoffs, there are dominant pitchers abound. Me, I've never put as much weight into statistics as some people. As Casey Stengel once said, statistics are to be used as a drunk uses a lightpole...for support, not illumination. I'm aware that the field of sabermetrics has been advanced by about ten thousand percent since Mr. Stengel's days, but I think the words still hold true, and numbers don't tell half the story in any sport. Nothing against the field of statistics, because it has unquestionably broadened our knowledge of sports, but there are certain things that numbers can't explain. I think this whole momentum thing is one of them. from WVBR | May 20, 2009, 7:48pm
But Jay, (I am going to defend my argument because I took a few hours doing the stats) you mention "winning breeds more winning." Yet I am just pointing out that a team can win a ton and still not perform in the playoffs, while others can lose a lot late and win. It has been random regardless of how you look at it with rotations and suc. Your argument would suggest that a hot September would cause a team to win. I do not doubt that each game can be decided on a coin flip, but in the short term when you look at it, it really can. The best team wins 60% of its games and the worst loses 40%. There is such a small difference between teams that it is no suprise a terrible team can take one game of a three game series against a great team. I have no doubt in individual momentum and momentum on a short term basis, but as a team it balances out in the long run, and even in the middle of a game you hear the announcers use the term "momentum shift". I just would like to see some sort of evidence that it actually had an effect. I agree with you on players not being motivated by contracts. There has been very intense statistical research to back that up.
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