Friday, March 6, 2015

How Much Does Momentum Matter in Baseball?

I e-mailed the following baseball question to Grantland's Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus, who discussed it on Episode 605 of the Effectively Wild podcast:

Hi guys,

In the podcast with Dirk [Hayhurst], he mentioned the concept of momentum in the pitcher-batter struggle. Ben's Grantland colleague Bill Barnwell has dismissed what he calls "Nomentum" in the NFL. Meanwhile, Russell Carleton and others have said similar things about momentum among baseball teams. Do you think that meaningful momentum exists in any aspect of the game? Does the ball really "look like a balloon" to hitters who've found a groove? Is success up and down the lineup really "contagious"? To what extent does momentum matter? When have we seen it recently?

The Bronx, NY

On Effectively Wild, Miller responded first, tying my question to a previous one about the bat feeling lighter after swinging it with a hitting doughnut. There's no way a doughnut should work, either scientifically or logically. Yet, having played baseball, I can tell you that the bat does feel lighter for a short time. It's all relative. Unfortunately for the hitter, the only edge that a hitting doughnut can really provide is a mental one. After all, the bat still weighs the same amount.

Miller continued that he believes that hitters sometimes think the ball looks like a balloon. Unfortunately, he said, it's a baseball traveling very fast with lots of movement. I would sum up Miller's point by saying that perceived momentum (or comforting routines like using a doughnut) can provide the hitter with a small mental edge.

Lindbergh began his answer by clarifying that he wouldn't label hitters' hot streaks or "being locked in" as forms of momentum. However, Lindbergh said that the concept of momentum is one of the few aspects of baseball that he believes without much evidence. He added that the main evidence is the confirmation by many hitters that momentum exists. Even though it's hard to find statistical evidence for momentum, Lindbergh opined that some hot streaks are partly the result of the hitter's true talent level increasing during that hot streak. He cited health and sound mechanics as possible reasons for the hitter's increased talent level.

Miller rephrased my query into two questions: Does hotness feed itself? and Does performance cluster? Miller said that performance clusters for many reasons during the long baseball season. (For instance, the world champion Giants benefited from some nice cluster luck last season.) Miller said he is also inclined to believe that there are examples of a hitter's hotness feeding itself. He gave a personal example of shooting many consecutive free throws, noting that the mental aspect is undeniable.

Lindbergh concluded that while he and Miller agree that momentum does exist in some cases, any argument for momentum as the main reason for a player's strong production is probably overblown. Momentum, he said, has a small effect on performance.

For my part, I think that Miller and Lindbergh correctly focused on individual momentum and hot streaks instead of team momentum. I agree that the hot streak is a real phenomenon. However, people often cite momentum as a reason for success up and down the lineup or for a team winning streak. It's difficult to believe that getting "on a roll" would allow a group of players to play significantly better than its collective true talent level.

In addition, Miller and Lindbergh decided to emphasize momentum as it pertains to hitters. However, I think momentum might be even more real for pitchers. There are definitely days when hurlers have a better feel for the ball, looser arm, or mechanics that are just clicking. On such days, those pitchers almost certainly owe some of their success to visits from Uncle Mo.

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