Yesterday I got into a tweet-off with Keith Law, the world’s leading sorcerer of baseball prospect projections, concerning the concept of momentum in baseball.
Mr. Law (“Klaw” as I like to call him) says that he has an issue with the concept of momentum since it can’t be quantified, and I hear him loud and clear.
There are so many buzz words in the game that essentially serve no purpose beyond making old farts sound all-knowing. The last thing we need is another narrative-propping catch-all that makes the game look like it’s a 1950s comic book where heart and patriotism are all you need to win.
You’ve heard this tripe before; Sayings like “this guy has a lot of grit,” or “this game is going to come down to who wants it more,” or “that’s a real good piece of hitting for a true pro’s pro with great character who just goes about the game the right way.”
Say what? I played professionally for 10 years and I’m not even sure I know what the hell that means.
Then there’s maybe the best mouthful of nothing ever offered to explain how one team wins over another, Hawk Harrelson’s infamous “The will to win” or TWTW as he called it, suggesting it should become a stat of its own.
Suffice to say, I get Klaw’s argument. There are enough BS concepts out there, concepts that count for nothing outside of helping the fan base believe this player is a “good guy” while that player “isn’t respecting the game” – which, in turn, is supposed to explain why they are winning and losing. It’s weak analysis, and whether you’re a sabermetrician or an old-school scout, such nutrient-free breakdowns give us nothing.
However, momentum does exist.
I know this because I’ve felt it when I played. It had a positive impact on me and my team. Conversely, I’ve also seen and felt the pull of negative momentum.
Instead of saying momentum simply IS and following it up with some Rudyard Kipling-esqe just-so story, I’ll do my best, as I did with Klaw, to give you an understanding of how it works for a player based on what I felt while playing.
First, we have to understand that not all things in baseball are quantifiable. I’m not absolving Hawk Harrelson here. I’m simply saying that just because we can’t measure it on a stat sheet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
Over a 162-game season, there are a lot of external factors that will never show up in a box score. Prince Fielder, for example, is having an off year. How much of that is because his home life is in disarray versus some loss of skill? Tossing out a concept purely because it can’t be measured discounts the human factor of the game.
Second, as Yogi said, “Baseball is 90 per cent mental and the other half is physical.” Whether it’s 90 per cent or not, a lot of the game exists in the mind, where any number of things – superstition, religion, routine – do have an impact. In short: if a player believes something can influence his play, then it can influence his play.
Here is where momentum comes in. If a team wins 10 games in a row it doesn’t get a bonus to its numbers going into the next game – that’s obvious. But winning repeatedly does validate a player and his skill set. Since baseball is a game of what-have-you-done-lately, if what you’ve done lately is win, there is a higher likelihood that you’ll believe you can win again.
Get good results while pitching and there is a higher likelihood you’ll trust your pitches the next time out. Get two hits and you’ll feel more comfortable and confident in your third at-bat.
Anything can happen once the ball is in motion, this is true, but the more positive outcomes you experience consecutively, the more likely you are to expect and believe you’ll experience another one, and the more you’ll learn to trust yourself or your team to execute.
Continuous positive execution is a lot like having hot dice at the gambling table, except that, unlike the gambling table where the probabilities reset the same each time, in baseball, trust, validation success and confidence can all have a direct impact on your decisions and reactions even though those things are not quantifiable in and of themselves.
This is why you hear concepts like “We’re going to send him down and help him get some confidence” or “Get him out there in small samples and build him back up,” AKA help him get a string of positive outcomes under his belt so he can believe in his ability to have more positive outcomes. After all, if a player takes the field thinking he’ll fail, he probably will.
A team that is seeing things through the lens of positive psychological momentum is more likely to look at an extra-inning walk-off win and think, “Of course we won – it was just a matter of time because that’s what we do.”
A team that is playing close to .500 all year is just happy it happened. A team that is playing below .500 and loses in extras might say, “Of course we lost – it was just a matter of time because that’s what we do.”
Since the season is so long, teams are going to run “hot” and “cold.” More buzz words that mean streaks will come and go. Yet when a team wins for a measurable stretch, their perceived beliefs of their ability are often at their highest – winning is what they do.
Eventually they’ll cool off because, with so much probability in the game, they must lose at some point. Until then, how much of their streak is talent, how much is luck, and how much is positive psychological momentum helping create luck and showcase talent?
With the post-season on the horizon, you’ll invariably hear broadcasters talk about momentum. Well, some teams just might have it.
It happened last year with the Giants and the Tigers in the World Series. The Tigers walloped the Yankees and then had to sit and wait while the Giants had an amazing comeback victory over the Reds. The Giants promptly carried the suddenly hot belief they could overcome any odds into the Series with the Tigers – a team that had gone cold with no immediate validation for its supposedly superior skills.
Of course, this doesn’t imply that the Giants weren’t a talented team, or that they won purely on intangibles. But it does mean a team with superior, measurable stats lost because it was missing something it had all season long. What was that something? Can it be measured?
In an increasingly numbers-driven baseball environment, managing the human aspect of the game is often sold short. It doesn’t help that this human aspect typically gets wrapped in tired clichés by lumpen broadcasters.
There is merit to the human element of the game, and just because it can’t be measured doesn’t mean it can’t factor into how what can be measured gets interpreted.