Research supports the notion of a “warm hand”; baseball players have always believed in it

The Post Sports Live team assesses the Nationals at the midpoint of the season and examines which players must lead the team to an eventual National League East crown. (Post Live Sports/The Washington Post)

The phrases permeate baseball – “He’s on fire”, “I can see the ball well” or “He’s locked up” – but, really, what do they all mean? For decades, research – mostly involving basketball – has disproved the existence of the “hot hand,” the theory that a player on one streak is more likely to perform better on the next play.

Don’t say that to baseball players.

“The hot streaks are real,” Washington Nationals batting coach Rick Schu said. “Totally. One hundred percent.”

“It’s a real thing,” added Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth. “No doubt about it. We talked about it over and over again. Michael Jordan talked about it. It’s true.”

Baseball players believe that eight hits in the last 10 at-bats, for example, will help determine the outcome of their 11th at-bat. Managers often seat a cold player in favor of a hot player, or have a pitcher pitch around a hot opposing hitter. But until recently, there was little hard evidence to prove the hot streaks.

A 1985 study by Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich and Stanford professors Robert Vallone and Amos Tversky found no evidence of back-to-back shooting when studying one-season statistics from the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics free throw shooting data and experience with Cornell players. The study found that Julius Erving was almost as likely to make a free throw after three misses (52%) as after making three consecutive free throws (48%).

But according to more recent research — such as a work study conducted by Brett Green, assistant professor at the California-Berkeley School of Business, and Jeffrey Zwiebel, professor of finance at Stanford — there is evidence that hot streaks exist.

As a sports fan, Zwiebel was motivated to respond to the claims of older studies and their statistical flaws. He thought baseball was different from basketball because of the breadth of data and the nature of the sport. In basketball, for example, a hot shooter can double-team fire by the opposing defense; that’s not possible in baseball.

Green and Zwiebel studied two million batsmen in MLB from 2000 to 2011. They controlled for batting and pitching abilities — such as left-on-left matchups and stadium size — and focused on 10 broad statistical categories, like batting averages. , home run percentages and strikeout rates.

They found that a batter’s last 25 appearances was a significant predictor of his next at-bat. When a player is hot, they found that his expected on-base percentage was 25-30 points higher than it would be if he was cold. Home run rates jumped 30% and strikeout rates plummeted. For pitchers in the right series, future performance has also been improved.

“The effect is quite significant,” Zwiebel said. “It is very important not only in a statistical sense but also in a strategic sense. The effect is large enough that it makes sense for managers to sit a cold hitter or play a hot hitter, or perhaps the strategic adjustments for a pitcher to pitch around a hot hitter.

Another recent basketball study presented this spring by Harvard’s Andrew Bocskocsky, John Ezekowitz and Carolyn Stein found that players who shoot hot were 1.2 to 2.4 percentage points more likely to hit their next Suddenly, a small but noticeable difference. Recent studies like these have finally found evidence for a belief that gamers have had for a long time.

“It matters a lot mentally if you hit your last few hits,” said Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters all season and is second in the majors. with 28 circuits. “Your confidence definitely increases and you’re more likely to get a hit on your next at-bat.”

The study by Green and Zwiebel, however, refrains from offering explanations. Zwiebel said he thought a player’s change in shot was likely a combination of physical and mental factors. Players, too, cannot identify the reasons. Werth, currently the Nationals’ leading hitter, talks about hitting streaks as if they were independent beings that come and go uncontrollably.

“If I knew the answer to that question, I would be a first-round Hall of Famer,” he said. “What does Yogi Berra say? “The game is 90% half mental.” It’s pretty accurate. It does not mean anything. If you can find it and keep it, you can have a really good year or a really good career. These are the guys who are able to harness it for long periods of time and not fall into crisis traps. If you go into a crisis, you come out of it faster. That’s the name of the game: try to stick with it for as long as possible. It is not easy.”

Werth knows from personal experience that punching can quickly turn either way. After a solid May, he cooled off in June, hitting .212 with just six more hits. During the crisis, Werth still felt well. Earlier this month, he made a minor adjustment — standing taller in the batter’s box, which allowed him to see pitches better and make his swing more compact — and he took off.

Werth is hitting .375 with 12 extra hits in July. Although he has only played 11 games, he has already hit six home runs, more than he hit in April, May or June. So what has changed?

“All of this happens in a split second as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand until it hits your bat,” Werth said. “It doesn’t happen for a very long time but when you are locked in this moment you are able to love, when you are well the universe slows down. The earth stops spinning. 100 miles an hour is not not 100 miles per hour. It’s that ability to make that little little window much longer.

There is definitely a major physical component to hitting. If a player is injured or even slightly weakened or tired, their swing is compromised. Even when healthy, bad habits can damage a player’s swing. But imagine that the player is in perfect health and that his swing is normal; players say mindset is just as important, maybe more so.

“Your mindset matters a lot,” Cruz said. “If you feel good, the chances of doing well improve.”

Players can be 0 for their last 10 but hit lines directly at opposing defenders. The numbers may show a mini-crisis but, in the player’s mind, he hits the ball well and he’s hot.

“There are times like that,” Werth said. “There are also times when you’re 0 for 20 and you don’t stand a chance in hell. When you are locked in, or hot, in the zone, you have a high success rate.

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