An Ageless Baseball Riddle is Solved by Me. Oh well.

By Benjamin M. Adams @BenAdamsO_O May 5, 2019

Why does a player in the field who makes a great catch have a better chance of leading off the next inning?

-Ageless Baseball Question

A few weeks ago, Yankees broadcaster and former player Paul O’Neill talked about a strange thing that happens in baseball. When a player makes a great catch in the field, their odds of batting the next inning seem to go up. O’Neill believes that the Baseball Gods reward good plays, and I happen to like that explanation as much as any. O’Neill recognizes the unusual skew not because he has access to any data, but from a lifetime of watching baseball. In science, we call it “empirical observation.” What baseball empiricists have come to witness, but never understand, is this: By all logic, the player who makes a good play in the field should have a 1 in 9 chance of leading off the next inning. However, we do not in fact see that distribution. The odds of the player leading off are significantly better than 1 in 9. Why?

Nobody can explain the phenomenon because they start their analysis with the play in the field. How can a good play in the field have any causal relationship to the batter leading off next inning? It clearly cannot. Instead, however, imagine leading off an inning merely as a proxy for being in the on-deck circle when the last out is made.

Players in the on-deck circle prepare themselves to hit. Consciously or not, they “psych themselves up” while they are on deck. A player only gets to hit 3 or 4 times each game. A player’s time at bat is a big moment for them, especially with runners on base. Or in a close game. Or in an important game. (In other words, lots of the time.) On top of that, hitting a baseball is the most challenging activity in all of sports. Players prepare for these important, challenging moments physically by swinging a bat but also mentally by getting themselves into the “zone.”

As their time to hit approaches, the adrenaline starts to flow. Players are now in a heightened state. The player then “spends” that heightened focus during their time at the plate. One way or another, the at-bat ends and the player returns to their normal state of focus. But what happens when the player gets into that zone and gets the adrenaline flowing, but then doesn’t get to “use” that focus because the third out is made? What happens then? In that case, the player does not return to a normal state of focus. Instead, the player brings some of that increased focus and adrenaline into the field with them. In that heightened state, they make better plays in the field.

In essence, it is not the good play in the field that causes the player to lead off the next inning. Instead, it is being in the batter’s box when the third out is made that causes the good play in the field. In this instance, leading off an inning is merely a proxy for being in the on-deck circle when the last out is made. Mystery solved. But I still like O’Neill’s explanation best.

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