Exploring how momentum carries over for clubs
Now let's go down to the clubhouse, where the players are celebrating a lopsided win. It may be the manager who says it. It could be a player. Or maybe both. You can almost bet, though, that somebody will say something along these lines:
"This just shows what we're capable of. And now we should be able to build off this momentum and go on a nice little run."
Except there's no evidence to suggest that momentum exists in baseball or that a big win today has a carry-over effect to tomorrow.
Through the weekend, there had been 125 Major League games this season that were decided by seven or more runs, with the same two teams facing each other again in the next game. And 59 times -- 47.2 percent -- the team that got knocked around came back to take the rematch.
"It's the old adage that momentum is the next day's starting pitcher," said John Kruk, former All-Star first baseman turned ESPN baseball analyst. "Everything in baseball is dictated by the starting pitcher. Which is kind of sad that you have to rely on them. But that's just the way it is."
Added Larry Bowa, who has spent 40 years in baseball as a player coach and manager and is now a studio analyst for MLB Network: "To me, momentum is that guy who's on the mound the next day. I mean, you can be swinging the bats and scoring runs for three or four days in a row. And some guy gets out there and he's dealing? It doesn't matter.
"That's what's good about this game. A last-place team can come in and shut down somebody if the pitcher is on top of his game. Good pitching always stops good hitting. When I first came up, I thought, 'Oh, we won two in a row. We won three in a row.' You think you've got momentum. It just doesn't work that way."
Fair enough. But baseball is also a game of streaks and slumps. Besides, some of the time, the team that wins is simply better. And that team has a chance to give some tired regulars a breather and not tax its bullpen. All that would seem to be some advantage the following game against a team that's just been knocked around. Except, again, it doesn't work that way.
Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell suggested that winning a close game might actually have more short-term benefit.
"I would probably be under the thought process that when you play close games and win you sustain the momentum from the mere fact that you're playing nine innings," McDowell said. "When you play those games where you win big, your starters are getting a breather. Maybe they get the last couple innings off. Your bench guys get an opportunity to get an at-bat or whatever."
"And it just seems that from the standpoint of the starting position players, when you grind out games, when you have success over the course of the season, that's the reason for it. Because you've been able to grind out games and you understand the process. The number of times that you win big are pretty much going to be few and far between. And the grind-out games are the ones that if you win and then you win the next night, it's just part of the process. I think you learn from going those games and playing a full nine innings."
Here's a stat that seems to back up the point. In those same 125 games, the team that scored enough to win by at least seven came back the next game and scored three or fewer 60 times (48 percent) including being shut out seven times and scoring just once on 15 occasions.
"Say you get 16 hits. How many times do you see a team get 16 hits three games in a row?" Bowa said. "You don't see it.
"I just think each game has its own story the next day. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't. I don't think there's any such thing as momentum in baseball. I think there's a feeling that you have. Like, say you're 12-2 in extra-inning games. When those games start getting deep, you know in your mind, 'We've won these.' That comes into play a lot. But as far as momentum, this is one sport it's hard to buy into that."
For Kruk, a lot of it just has to do with the nature of the sport.
"Because in baseball the players play 162 games, it's easier to turn the page than like in football, where you play once a week, or basketball, where you might play twice a week," he said. "It seems to me it would be harder to turn the page in those games. Losses would build. In baseball, you understand that once that game is over, you lament about it for an hour or so. And then you move on to the next day and start going over that pitcher -- scouting reports and watching video and all that stuff.
"That's why I think it's amazing that teams have long winning streaks like they do. Because, one, you have to have great starting pitching every day. Or you have to have a great offense so you can just outscore people."
Now let's go down to the clubhouse, where the players are pondering a one-sided loss. It may be the manager who says it. It could be a player. Or maybe both. You can almost bet, though, that somebody will say something along these lines:
"That was pretty ugly, but fortunately, it only counts as one loss. There's no reason we can't come back and win tomorrow."
And you know what? He'd be right.