Goatriders of the Apocalypse

A quick look at momentum

In the comments of an earlier post, it was brought up (I forget by who) that momentum going into the playoffs - specifically, a winning record in September - translated into winning in the playoffs. So I decided to test this.

Fair warning: this is not a detailed study. This is the simplified study that it took me 30 minutes to do. I took a quick look at playoff series from 1995 to 2007, essentially the Wild Card era.

First, let's look at the correlation. The correlation between a team's win-loss record has a .38 correlation with their postseason win-loss record. So, not terribly strong, but certainly notable. A correlation between a team's W-L record in September and their W-L record in the postseason? -0.02. In other words, basically meaningless.

Now, to the head to head record. The team with the best regular season W-L record won each series 61% of the time. The team with the best September W-L record won each series 39% of the time.

Just so's I'm clear, here is what I am saying:

  • Momentum is not a very good predictor of playoff success.
  • The best teams in the regular season tend to be the teams to win in the playoffs.

I am not claiming that there is no benefit whatsoever from momentum; that study would require more detail than what I am showing here. But if there is an effect from momentum, it is probably a very tiny effect, sort of like the difference between letting Jason Marquis hit and letting Casey McGehee hit (who is now the Brewers' problem, by the way). Certainly it's better to win ballgames in September than to lose them - hell, I advocate winning all 162 of them if at all possible. I am 100% behind the idea of winning as many ballgames as is humanly possible.

But I don't think there's any reason to think that momentum is the reason the Cubs lost in the playoffs this year, or that getting momentum next season would greatly improve the Cubs' chances.

Momentum is a

huge factor when it actually takes place, but to think momentum affects anything more than in that specific game is questionable. What happens one day very seldom effects the next.

However, a team that is tight can fall victim to the lack of heads up play they might otherwise exhibit. This is one of the problems that befell our beloved in the postseason.

Can a team leader loosen up his teammates? I'm sure he can, but what might be more beneficial is if he can get them to not give up.

It's not unheard of to lose a game 4-2, but when the team drags their ass around the field when their only down 2 runs with 5 innings to play is a sign of a team that's' head just ain't screwed on right. You got a pair swinging between your legs boys don't you? Well let's play like it then.

How do we know they were

How do we know they were "tight"? I think it's a fair assumption any team that gets bounced in the playoffs will appear "tight" while the winning team appears "loose". Doesn't that mean that in reality what you have is a perception based on the results? Or, the team played tight because they were losing rather than losing because they played tight?

I suppose that, in this case,

I suppose that, in this case, we'll have to rely on the opinions of people who know more about baseball than us who characterized the play of the team as being "tight."

Although I think that you could probably have just watched how they batted and saw that they weren't working the counts the same way as during the regular season, they weren't waiting for the right pitch, and they weren't demonstrating the same amount of patience as what they had before October.

Please.

I don't know if there's enough Draino in the house for me to drink to be as blatheringly stupid and cliched as a television baseball commentator.

Here's the problem I have, in a nutshell. Commentators refer to almost every team that loses a playoff series (or at least loses one badly) as "playing tight." But if we look at the Cubs' record this year, they won games at a .602 clip. In other words, we expect the Cubs to win against an average team 60% of the time. You face nothing but above-average teams in the playoffs. So we'd expect the Cubs to win even fewer of their games. Over enough playoff series, we'd expect the better team to lose badly some of the time just based upon random variation around the mean.

But the guys who have more Draino than I do have to say something, so they reach into their Magical Bag Of Boring Cliches, and come up with "playing tight." What does it mean? It means I better hope I don't have a plumbing problem anytime soon.

That's precisely the problem

That's precisely the problem with these kinds of cliches. They're said about every team in some way or another and it's too predictable to take it seriously. Someone didn't even have to watch the Cubs play to know one of the story lines would be that they played "tight" while the Dodgers played "loose."

They just didn't play good baseball over a 3-game stretch. They looked like a bad baseball team. It wasn't the only 3-game stretch where the Cubs looked like a bad baseball team. I'm pretty sure we could go back and watch those games and see the same kinds of things we saw in October.

But two can play this game

What exactly do you mean by "they looked like a bad baseball team?" Was it the errors? The poor hitting?

I'm not talking about the

I'm not talking about the commentators... good lord, I'm still trying to purge them from my brain.

Anyway, I think I accurately described what the Cubs were doing that I would characterize as "playing tight" or "pressing."

One other thing - I'd be hard pressed to find it, but in an article from earlier this year, Lou Piniella expressed how surprised he was by the clubhouse atmosphere in the '07 playoffs. Maybe the journalist should've been more specific and asked if he noticed it before they lost the second game against the D-Backs, but as I said on Maddog's blog, unlike how it is on OOTP, there's more to baseball than crunching numbers. You are correct in saying that talking about one aspect - ie: team leaders, pressing, clubhouse chemistry, playing tight, clutch mentality, etc. - blows it out of proportion, though. However, that doesn't mean these ideas should be dismissed all together as being nonsense.

I agree they shouldn't be

I agree they shouldn't be dismissed as nonsense. I believe they should be studied, if possible, so that we can learn more and until then we should err on the side of what we do know. Furthermore, what happened to the Cubs in 2007 and 2008 (in the playoffs) isn't statistically significant. It's easily explained by the factors that we are well aware of.

I agree with you entirely that nobody should dismiss these things. I just wish they were used differently, is all. I'm not saying these things didn't have an impact. They likely had some small insignificant affect on how the Cubs have done in October the last 2 years. I'm sure there are several psychological reasons that have added up to perhaps some small indication of why these things happened. But it's a combination of many things and far too often we see them discussed as one thing. Study these if possible, but we know first and foremost that production wins and loses ballgames. We know teams with better players win more frequently than teams with lesser players. We also know that lesser teams beat superior teams quite often. It's that point there that I think is being ignored.

If the Cubs lose 24 more straight games in the postseason I think we'll have to start looking at factors other than statistical ones to explain what has happened, but losing 6 straight, or even 9 straight if you include the 2003 NLCS, it's just not a large enough number of losses to be statistically significant.

All of this, of course, in my opinion.

Fair point

Maddog, but does it really matter?

Does it matter like the

Does it matter like the financial crisis matters? Of course not, but it matters when we're discussing baseball. Like everything else, there are truths in baseball, but those facts seem to be stretched to the limit, if not entirely ignored, far too often. I'm not saying the team wasn't playing tight. I have no idea once again. I don't think one can tell something like that by watching a team and it's also another one of those things where each and every one of us will have a different definition for. I also know that it's one of those things that announcers, media and the fans typically state in very predictable situations. For example, I'm sure it's already been said that the Rays were playing tight in the World Series. If it hasn't been said already, it will be said repeatedly soon enough. I'm sure it's been discussed, at least in some circles, that each and every team who lost in the playoffs was playing tight. I think what we have here isn't something that caused the team to lose, but a quick and easy explanation to help some understand why something happened. Most fans don't want to accept that baseball consists of largely random events. People like to think they have more control over things than they really do. I think this is just another example of that. Many fans have dismissed DIPS because they don't want to accept that there is a lot of things that are uncontrollable, even something that you'd think could be controlled.

We know why the Cubs lost. How they played was awful compared to how they did in the regular season. We also know that teams are only the team they showed to be over the course of the season, over the course of a very long stretch. If a team like the Cubs can play awful baseball for 3 games, or 5 games in July, why do we refuse to believe that the same team could play just as badly in October? The answer to that one is one we even know: most people have little or no understanding of statistics. Statistics (how good a team is) is only relevant when it comes to a large enough number of games. You're better off always betting on the better team winning in the postseason as Colin said, but there is way too much variance in how an individual can produce in 1, 2 or 3 games as opposed to 120, 130 or 160 games.

So, yeah, I think it matters. We have simple explanations for why these events have happened yet they're ignored for the more magical reasons. It's unnecessary.

"tightness"

I didn't know that a simple characterization of a team's play could lead to such an outcry. I watched a good amount of the playoffs this year and I would not conclude that all teams that lost in the playoffs looked tight, the Angels did not look "tight" in their loss to the Red Sox, the Red Sox were not "tight" in their loss to the Rays and the Rays were not "tight" in their loss to the Phillies nor did all the commentators suggest that the losing teams were, if you watched the Cubs all year and saw them in the playoffs I believe it is very fair and honest to characterize their play as tight. I believe we want to believe it is something much greater but as you said you can't round up the stats to describe why a team so good can look so bad, this leads to as I said before a fair and honest description of a "tight" team.

Chicago Tribune's Chicago's Best Blogs award