On The Rockies, And The Importance Of Momentum

2)     25.4%

This being the final stretch of the regular season, some of us end up spending an awful lot of time at CoolStandings.com. Playoff odds are an imperfect science, but they're accurate enough to be gripping. Math can be popular, given the proper application.

So I wanted to take this chance to make one final visit, in the last Five Numbers column of the year. And I want to visit the page not of a team that's making the playoffs, but of a team that missed. That team being the Colorado Rockies.

The Rockies slumped their way out of the race, but once upon a time - barely more than a week ago - they were the hottest team in the league. The Rockies were 62-60 on August 21st. Then they won seven of their next eight. And after a brief three-game losing streak, they went on to win ten in a row and 13 of their next 15 to pull up to 82-66. We'd all seen this before. We'd seen the Rockies go on a late-season run. This was an unusual blend of otherworldly and unsurprising.

So hot were the Rockies that a lot of people started to pencil them in as the favorites. Favorites for the NL West. Favorites for the Wild Card. Favorites to make the playoffs, anyway. So many people were pushing the Rockies as the team that wouldn't quit, and the team that wouldn't lose. People saw their success and figured this was a team playing the right kind of baseball at the right time of year.

So popular did the Rockies become as a playoff pick that it's easy to forget they never actually occupied a playoff position. At their peak, on September 18th, they were one game back in the NL West and 2.5 games back in the Wild Card. At their peak, they were stuck behind two other teams, and at their peak, their playoff odds stood at just 25.4%.

25.4%, of course, is pretty good when compared to the 1.7% the odds stood at not three weeks before. But the 25.4% odds at the time were half as good as those of the Padres, half as good as those of the Giants, and a third as good as those of the Braves. Even then - even as the hottest team in baseball - the Rockies remained a statistical underdog.

People said one thing. The numbers said another. And in a case like this, one should always trust the numbers. It doesn't matter that the Rockies came apart soon thereafter. What matters is that people got too caught up in the momentum of it all when, as we've talked about in this space before, there's no compelling reason to believe that momentum and hot streaks have predictive value. None, in the history of baseball. There have been teams that sustained hot streaks, sure. There have also been teams that caught fire and then suddenly collapsed. Teams like Colorado.

It's all just how numbers work. Streaks will happen. Some will be short. Some will be long. None of them mean all that much when it comes to trying to figure out how the next game will go. Even though the Rockies were riding high, they were still behind in two races. People got ahead of themselves. The focus shouldn't have been on how the Rockies became sudden favorites. The focus should've been on how the Rockies became suddenly relevant.

That was the focus for some. It wasn't the focus for enough. Momentum just strikes an emotional chord. Let's say Team A has a 4-0 lead over Team B in the bottom of the ninth. Team B's first two runners reach base. Fans of Team A will really start to sweat, even though Team A still has a 91% chance of winning the game. They'll sweat, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Maybe that isn't the best example. Within a game, it's easy to see how momentum shifts could be caused by underperformance, which might be indicative. But the point remains valid. People, I think, are generally aware of the odds of success or failure, but momentum causes them to mentally over-shift the odds in one direction.

It's tricky, and understanding all this certainly won't make you stop sweating if your team gets in a slump, or your rival catches fire. When in doubt, though, believe in the numbers. Momentum doesn't mean as much as we want it to.


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