You can’t take thoughts out of sports

By Jeff Linville -
Jeff Linville News Editor -

On Tuesday, ESPN posted two baseball stories that seemed to contradict one another.

One article told how the prevalence of defensive shifting was killing hitters like Albert Pujols, who are swatting the crap out of the ball with nothing to show for it. Shifting is destroying offense and needs to be banned, said some players and agents.

The other article said to hold yer horses because shifting isn’t actually helping teams win. Sure, it can cause some players to make outs more often, but there has also been an unexpected problem with shifting: it messes with the pitchers’ minds.

Ok, the article didn’t say that exactly; I inferred that. But it’s not a big leap of logic.

Statistics from the 2015-17 seasons have shown that when the manager calls for a shift, the pitcher tends to be a little more erratic in finding the strike zone. Players walked 9 percent of the time against a standard defense and 9.8 percent when the shift was on. This 0.8 percent might not sound like much, but across the whole league that amounted to about 1,800 more walks.

Baseball players can be very superstitious. Wade Boggs once said he was always very careful to never step on the foul line when taking his position at third base between innings. If a guy has a hitting streak with a certain bat or even batting glove, then he begins to latch on to those things believing they bring him luck.

So imagine a pitcher looking over his left shoulder and seeing only a first baseman with no second baseman in sight because he’s way over behind the bag. You think that might make the pitcher nervous? Maybe he starts trying to nibble at the edge of the strike zone with perfect pitches because of some conscious or unconscious fear of a batted ball going into that huge gap on the weak side.

I read an article years ago that said the most important count in baseball is the 1-1 pitch. If it is a strike, the batter is in the hole 1-2 and becomes defensive. If it goes wide and becomes a 2-1 count, the batter becomes aggressive on the next throw, and his batting average jumps way up.

Imagine it’s a 1-1 count, and the pitcher is sweating that shift. You think that couldn’t influence the outcome in a bad way?

If he’s trying to pitch on the outside, he might miss off the plate to avoid a hit to the opposite field. If he is pitching inside to play to the shift, is that more likely to play into the power of a slugger?

Like Yogi Berra supposedly said, “Ninety percent of the game is half-mental.”

I love numbers as much as the next guy — probably more. But you can never eliminate the mental influence.

When I was trying to learn golf 20 years ago I read an article in Golf Digest about putting. It said that a lot of guys will bend down and pick up their ball if it is within two feet of the cup and just assume they would make the next putt. However, it said that even with the very best professional golfers competing in the majors each year, 10 percent of the time they will miss a putt in the 2-foot range.

Yes, the conditions and courses at the majors tend to be difficult, but still, these are pros sinking 2-foot putts. And they miss 10 percent of the time? You know the mental aspect has to play a part.

Back out to 6 feet, and it’s a 50/50 proposition on going in.

A couple of years ago I got into a debate with a cousin of mine over two-point conversions in football.

He argued that with a good offense — like my Steelers that I’ve followed for 40 years — that it makes mathematical sense to go for a two-point try every single time. Never kick an extra point, he insisted.

His theory is simple. Teams will make an extra point 97 or 98 percent of the time. An offense needs only to make a two-point try 50 percent of the time to score more points per attempt.

Is this practical? According to Noah Riley, who has researched two-point conversions over the past seven years, yes it is.

He said there were 506 attempts in that period, and teams were successful 48.8 percent of the time. That is coming from all teams, and it stands to reason that bad teams are behind more often at the end of the game would be the ones attempting a higher percentage of tries.

So, if a good offense were to practice these plays regularly and use them all the time, then the rate might be more like 55 percent.

Yes, that’s all true, and the Patriots used those plays very well against the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl a year and a half ago.

Then why don’t I agree with my cousin? Because it takes out the mental aspect of failure.

Having watched a lot of games over the decades, I’ve seen the eruption of joy on players’ faces when they are making a comeback and scoring points. Momentum shifts, and they feel energized as the defense goes back out onto the field.

Yet, what about when the team scores a TD and fails to get the two points?

It’s like someone lets the air out of their balloon. The shoulders droop and some of that energy dissipates before they’ve even kicked off again.

If you score, then great. Your team has two more points and more momentum.

However, if you miss, then you risk hurting the team’s morale in a small way that you may not notice, just like those baseball pitchers gradually walking more batters. But the result could be enough to tip the scales against your argument when the two outcomes are so close already.

Jeff Linville News Editor Linville News Editor

By Jeff Linville

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the news editor and can be reached at 415-4692.