There’s no way to explain what Daniel Murphy—maybe the hottest player in the history of professional baseball—is doing right now. Even science can’t explain it.
For 30 years, the general consensus among sports analytics experts was that any single scalding or ice-cold stretch of play is an example of statistical noise that has no predictive value, and a prolonged period of success shouldn’t be treated in any way differently than we would if we started flipping a coin and landed on heads again and again.
But you’d be hard pressed to find an athlete or fan anywhere that doesn’t see this as profoundly wrong and an example of data wonks missing the forest for the trees.
Now, after all, it turns out the conventional wisdom—those armed with no advanced metrics but a working pair of eyeballs—might have been right all along.
In case you haven’t been following the New York Mets’ giddily improbable, borderline-miraculous trek to the World Series, their offense has been powered by an utterly average 30-year-old second baseman that never bopped more than 14 homers in a single season who, for reasons unknown, has transmogrified into the greatest hitter in postseason history.
Over the last nine games Murphy’s hitting an otherworldly .421 with a 1.026 slugging percentage, including a record-breaking 1.294 in the League Championship Series. He’s crushed seven dingers, including one in each of the last six games, a playoff feat that’s previously been accomplished by absolutely no one.
And it’s not like he’s feasting off lowly, back-of-the rotation pitchers. He’s gone yard facing the likes of Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, and Zach Grienke—more or less the top three candidates for the Cy Young Award.
Want more? Murphy’s never homered five times in a calendar month over the course of his career, nor has he ever hit one for more than two games in a row, and yet somehow he’s one dinger away from tying Barry Bonds, Carlos Beltran, and Nelson Cruz’s record of eight in a single postseason.
It’s mind-boggling, and all the more wondrous to behold simply because no one can pin down a reason for Murphy’s explosion. Just ask Daniel Murphy.
“I can’t explain it,’’ Murphy said after crushing a mid-90s fastball from the Chicago Cubs’s Fernando Rodney to top off an 8-3 series-clinching win. “It’s just such a blessing to be able to contribute to what we’ve been able to do. I’m excited to be able to do something to help us win ballgames, but I can’t explain it.’’
The question is, can he keep it up? Will the six-day layoff before the start of the World Series on Tuesday shake off whatever magical pixie dust or gift from a Met-loving deity that was bestowed on Murphy? And can science help us figure it out?
Ask many social scientists and economists, and they’ll still say Murphy’s hot streak is irrelevant for what he’ll do in the future.
Just because Murphy’s been mashing the ball like an in his prime Babe Ruth of late, it would still be quite unwise to pitch around him to face a struggling Yoenis Cespedes, like the Cubs did in Game Two. (It didn’t work out that well).
There’s even a name for this branch of social studies: the hot-hand fallacy. As the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, that can’t-miss, almost Zen-like feeling of being “in the zone” is actually an example of a “massive and widespread cognitive illusion.”
But recent studies tell a different story. They’ve found that that lingering effects of a hot streak will have an impact on the next at-bat or jump shot.
To wit, three researchers at Harvard examined over 83,000 shots during the 2012-13 NBA season and found that after sinking an unusually high percentage of four shots, there was a “1.2 to 2.4 percentage points in increased likelihood of making a shot.”
In baseball, Jeff Zwiebel and Brett Green delved into 12 years worth of pitching and batting stats, and found “strong evidence for its existence in all ten statistical categories we consider. The magnitudes are significant; being ‘hot’ corresponds to roughly a one quartile increase in the distribution.”
As to why previous studies were inaccurate, “prior evidence on the absence of a hot hand (despite widespread belief in its presence) should not be interpreted as a cognitive mistake—as it typically is in the literature—but rather as an efficient equilibrium adjustment,” they wrote.
Ask Mitchel Litchman, a baseball analyst who has consulted for several MLB and the co-author of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball.
He shared a chapter for the upcoming edition of the Hardball Times Baseball Annual in which he examines Zwiebel and Green’s work. While differing somewhat with their methodology, he agreed with the general conclusion.
“There is a modest hot and cold hand effect among hitters in baseball,” he told The Daily Beast. “Not enough for the manager of either team to significantly alter their strategies, but enough perhaps to break a tie, so to speak.”
Eno Sarris, a senior writer at Fangraphs.com, doesn’t think Murphy’s feats lend any credence to some of the latest research.
“I don't believe in hot hands,” he wrote via email. “However, I do believe in adjustments.
“With Murphy, he stepped closer to the plate and started pulling the ball a little more, probably because pitchers were content to take his opposite-field singles and were getting him out on the other half of the plate. He moves in closer, and the outside part of the plate is closer, and he has to pull in order to hit middle, middle-in.”
And that’s true. Mets hitting coach Kevin Long has been tinkering with Murphy’s approach all season and trying to get him to pull the ball more, an adjustment that certainly helped pull him out of an atrocious April slump.
Heading into the World Series, where the Mets will take on the Kansas City Royals, there’s surely a team of bleary-eyed analysts huddled in a basement poring over game film to find an exploitable, yet-unseen flaw in Murphy’s swing.
Sarris rightfully notes that that process has already begun.
“Did you see any of those back-door sinkers that Arrieta threw him?” he wrote. “He’s completely vulnerable to those now, because it looks like it will hit him on the hip, and then the movement takes it into the zone. He probably won’t swing at those, and he’ll take strikes, and his strikeout rate will go up. So he’ll have to make another decision. He’ll have to make another adjustment.”
So this isn’t a quasi-mystical outlier for Murphy. It’s representative of a level of ability that he had all along.
Over time—possibly starting as soon as Tuesday night—he’ll return to the statistical norms that he established over the first eight years of his major league career.
Take this, for example: When I was a working actor performing in a long run of a play, there were stretches where I got into the Zone. It’s not that I exceeded my abilities, but there would be a series of performances where I was just plumb nailing it. Eventually, that feeling would fade and like an athlete, I’d make adjustments.
Granted, it wasn’t a competitive situation, like Murphy staring down the barrel of a vicious slider at the knees. Quite the contrary: My doing better was in everyone’s best interest. But the fact that I felt like I was “on” certainly gave me more confidence going into a show, and that feeling usually led to a better performance.
Sarris has an answer for this as well.
“If you’re in the zone, your ideation is positive. You’re not thinking about the bad things. And thinking positively has been shown to have an effect on outcomes,” he wrote. “Honestly, I don’t know why it doesn’t turn up in the research. I think it’s the adjustments again. You get hot, you get more scrutiny, and they look closer at how to get you out.”
It’s pretty clear Daniel Murphy’s ideation is off the charts right now, what with teammates like Lucas Duda saying, “The guy’s on a different planet right now,” or Curtis Granderson joking, “I’ll get a chance to tell people I played with Babe Ruth.”
That’s what makes this all so much fun: the plunge into the unknown, that we really don’t have any idea what strangeness might happen next, predictive statistical models be damned.
It certainly shouldn’t be happening to a player like Murphy, who up until this point was defined not so much by Herculean blasts, but by the odd tendency to screw up in the most ridiculous, hilarious ways at the absolute worst moment. As David Roth wrote at VICE Sports, “he looks and acts exactly like an average square-jawed big leaguer, except sometimes he just, like, does the ‘Thriller’ dance instead of tagging up.”
If all goes well, maybe he’ll get to sit behind another postgame lectern looking like the human embodiment of the shrug emoticon, goofily blurting out the same thing as everyone watching: “I just swung... And then when I hit it, I said, ‘Oh my goodness.’”