In play­offs, one-game mo­men­tum a myth

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - MLB BOX SCORES - Ted Berg

When­ever an MLB team trail­ing in a post­sea­son se­ries pulls out a big win, we say the se­ries’ mo­men­tum has swung.

It makes ob­vi­ous fod­der for dis­cus­sion for any­one fol­low­ing post­sea­son base­ball, from the ca­sual fan at the wa­ter cooler to the sea­soned an­a­lyst on tele­vi­sion. I’ve cer­tainly been guilty of it my­self, and any­one could dig up count­less ex­am­ples of this au­thor stat­ing that play­off wins such as the New York Yan­kees’ se­ries-evening vic­tory in Bos­ton might rep­re­sent some greater change in the course of the se­ries.

One is­sue: The no­tion of “mo­men­tum” in­side a short MLB post­sea­son se­ries does not ex­ist, or at least seems im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify with any ev­i­dence beyond the anec­do­tal. The truth more likely lies with the old base­ball adage, at­trib­uted to long­time man­ager Earl Weaver, that mo­men­tum is as good as the next day’s start­ing pitcher.

I looked back at ev­ery post­sea­son se­ries from 2012 through 2017 to see if I could find any in­di­ca­tion that mo­men­tum is a real thing. I tal­lied the num­ber of times a team that won any game in a se­ries won the next game in the se­ries.

I essen­tially to­taled the won-loss record of teams com­ing off a post­sea­son win. The first game of any se­ries, here, es­tab­lishes the mo­men­tum, but does not re­flect whether mo­men­tum helped a team. So in the in­stance of a four-game sweep of a seven-game se­ries, the team with mo­men­tum went 3-0. In a se­ries like last year’s Chicago Cubs-Wash­ing­ton Na­tion­als NLDS, in which the Cubs won Games 1, 3 and 5, the team with “mo­men­tum” went 0-4.

I used 2012 as an end­point for a cou­ple of rea­sons. That was the first year of the cur­rent post­sea­son for­mat, in which two wild-card teams per league play for en­try into the proper play­offs. I did not in­cor­po­rate the re­sults of wild-card games.

From 2012 to 2017, there were 204 to­tal MLB post­sea­son games across 42 play­off se­ries. Since Games 1 did not count for this ex­er­cise, that leaves ex­actly 162 games in which one club had mo­men­tum within a se­ries. And teams com­ing off a win in the se­ries were 80-82 in the fol­low­ing games.

Mo­men­tum, as we de­fine noth­ing.

The team with mo­men­tum in­side a post­sea­son se­ries wins the next game only about half the time, and this re­ally shouldn’t be a sur­prise.

The odds on any in­di­vid­ual base­ball game be­tween two good teams are pretty much a coin toss.

Math­e­ma­ti­cian Leonard Mlodi­now’s well-rea­soned claim is that it would re­quire a best-of-269-game se­ries to prove one MLB team ca­pa­ble of beat­ing an­other one 55% of the time.

Even if post­sea­son teams do get some boost from win­ning the pre­vi­ous night’s game, it’s not enough to over­whelm the ran­dom­ness that dom­i­nates base­ball, and so it’s not enough to re­li­ably im­pact the next day’s fi­nal score.

Maybe us­ing fi­nal game re­sults does no jus­tice to swings of mo­men­tum in­side the games them­selves, and maybe the it, means Yanks’ win against the Red Sox in Game 2 in­di­cates a con­tin­u­a­tion of the mo­men­tum New York achieved by beat­ing up on the Bos­ton bullpen in the late in­nings of its Game 1 loss.

In 2004, Yan­kees fans were con­fi­dent that their team would be mov­ing on to the World Se­ries when Mar­i­ano Rivera came in to close out the Red Sox. But the Sox tied the score against Rivera in the ninth.

Bos­ton won that game and its next seven post­sea­son games to take the World Se­ries on a seem­ingly un­de­ni­able wave of mo­men­tum.

I’m not out to con­vince any­one that the 2004 Red Sox did not mirac­u­lously change the course of their post­sea­son with that come­back in Game 4.

Viewed as a se­ries of coin tosses, that one would mark three con­sec­u­tive tails fol­lowed by eight con­sec­u­tive heads — an eye-open­ing se­quence, though not an im­pos­si­ble one.

But the value of mo­men­tum as we so of­ten de­fine it — in the case of the At­lanta Braves’ win against the Los An­ge­les Dodgers in Game 3 for ex­am­ple — is un­doubt­edly over­stated. Base­ball’s just not that straight­for­ward.

The Dodgers wrapped up the se­ries in Game 4.


Brock Holt’s two-run homer helped the Red Sox rout the Yan­kees 16-1 in Game 3 as Bos­ton took con­trol of the ALDS.

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