In Baseball's "Nothing Matters" Moments, Everything Matters

There comes a point in every baseball game when a player realizes that nothing matters. At this point, no home run, no stolen base, and no statistics-defying history of comebacks will make a difference. This point is not fixed — it can happen early on or in the last seconds of triple overtime — but everything that happens afterward is, effectively, moot. A player’s performance in these so-called “meaningless game situations,” new research shows, is something coaches should consider.

The new, unpublished study from computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University reveals that players can actually boost their gameplay overall by making the most of hopeless situations. “In this paper, our goal has been to raise awareness about the fact that not all at-bats during a season are of equal import,” the authors said in a release. “Some players have been able to significantly improve their overall season statistics by maximizing their performance in those situations.”

In other words, they were looking for the players who didn’t give up when games seemed hopeless, attempting to figure out whether there was any point to their efforts. They defined the threshold of meaninglessness as the moment when there is a 5-percent chance of the trailing team catching up, though they admit doing so was “somewhat arbitrary.”

The Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant performed extraordinarily well in meaningless game situations in 2016.

Getty Images / Ezra Shaw

They looked at the statistics from over 9,600 major league games that took place between 2013 and 2016, using this year’s results as their representative sample. In 2016, 21,089 plate appearances by 781 hitters occurred in a meaningless game situation. Of the total 184,580 plate appearances that took place in 2016, 11.4 percent happened after the point at which the game seemed hopeless.

And of the 5,610 home runs players hit during the 2016 regular season, 14.6 percent of them happened in a meaningless game situation.

Who are these players who continue to play hard, even when the game has already been decided? In 2016, top marks went to National League MVP Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs. While Bryant batted a cool .292 in the regular season, his meaningless game stats are much more interesting: In meaningless game situations where the Cubs were winning — that is, moments where the team was going to win, regardless of their performance — he batted a sweet .500. Taking into account the meaningless situations where the Cubs were definitely going to lose, he still maintained a batting average of .400.

Other players that performed particularly well in meaningless situations included the Toronto Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion, the Colorado Rockies’ Carlos Gonzalez, and the San Diego Padres’ Yangervis Solarte.

The authors argue that the “MGS” statistic should be considered alongside more common metrics, like RBIs and batting averages, because it reveals when a player does his best hitting. Would Kris Bryant be a useful player if his coach Joe Maddon discovered that the majority of the hits that contributed to his .292 batting average this year happened when the stakes were low? Probably not — but Maddon wouldn’t be able to tell unless he knows how Bryant performs in meaningless situations.

It’ll be up to the coaches to decide how to interpret meaningless situation data. While it may seem like a useful thing to have a player who doesn’t give up in those moments, it’s significantly less useful to have a player who does well only in those moments. But this, the authors suggest, is something coaches could easily address — as long as they’re aware of it.

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