Research into sabermetrics and baseball theory has yielded some interesting, but often controversial results. It argues that there is no such skill as “clutch hitting” – that a player can’t up their game in a clutch situation in order to improve the chances of landing a base hit and scoring the run. It argues that catchers have little to no effect on pitching ability – at least, not to a degree that is measurable by most modern technology. It believes that sacrifice bunts are a bad decision in nearly 80% of all attempts.

One of the things that make baseball great is that fans are welcome to decide what beliefs they want to subscribe to. Traditionalists may prefer to trust that RBI, ERA and Wins are an accurate judge of skill. Those that follow sabermetrics may prefer WAR, wOBA, tRA and FIP. There may be fans that believe in a mix of both.

Sabermetrics and Psychology

But there is one thing that I believe sabermetrics has wrong. Sabermetrics believes that there is no such thing as a hot streak. And while there may be some truth to that belief, it also ignores a very important part of human psychology.

Research has shown that hot streaks aren’t predictive; that if a player is “hot,” they still have roughly the same chance of getting a hit or getting out as their true talent level, implying that there is no such thing as a hot streak, and that instead a “hot streak” is just a term people use to describe the effects of randomization. If you flip a coin 10 times you have a chance of getting 10 heads, but that doesn’t mean that the coin is “hot” in favor of heads. It’s a coin, it’s random, and it just happened that ten heads in a row where hit.

On the one hand, since hot streaks aren’t predictive, it is absolutely possible that they don’t exist. But on the other hand, the idea that someone can’t be “on the top of their game” goes against something we also know to be true – namely, that a player that is feeling too much pressure or struggling may start “pressing.” We’ve all seen players that are clearly trying too hard to break out of a slump, and the pressure and anxiety of a baseball game is causing them to struggle.

So maybe the problem is not that a hot streak doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s that we’re defining it wrong. Maybe what we need to focus on instead is how to make sure the player is at his best – making sure he experiences the least amount of anxiety and tension so that he is playing to the best of his ability with every at bat. That way, he’d be improving his chances of hitting the ball with authority, because he won’t be experiencing the stress and anxiety that often hold players back.

Even the best hitter in baseball is going to fail 65% of the time, and because a lot of hitting is luck (when a ball is caught by a diving defender or narrowly gets under a player’s outstretched glove) and chance (hitting against a bad pitcher or a good pitcher) there are going to be some perceived hot and cold streaks that are nothing more than random variation. But at the very least, it should be possible to decrease a player’s stress and anxiety so that they’re able to bring their absolute best to every at bat, and in doing so increasing their chances of getting into a hot streak and bringing more value to their team.

How to Reduce Player Anxiety

The idea of mental preparation for a baseball game is a tricky one. On the one hand, a player’s previous performance is going to play a role – if the player has been struggling of late, they’re probably experiencing more stress. If a player is hitting well, they probably have more confidence. But there are some strategies that players can try to initiate before a ballgame:

• Routines – Having a pre-set routine that you complete every game beyond the normal warm ups is often a useful tool. Routines have long been a solution for anxiety disorders and panic attacks because they give people a sense of normalcy during the stress of the day. Players will have to develop a routine that keeps them comfortable, but as long as they find something that works for them they should be able to manage their anxiety before the game and before each at bat.

• Relaxation Exercises – There are a lot of different relaxation exercises that a player can complete before a game. Deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and other tools that can help players (secretly, if they like) enjoy greater relaxation before the game no matter how they’ve been playing.

• Living Healthy – It sounds like a cop out, but the reality is that far too many players live unhealthy lifestyles during the season, and considerable research has shown that living recklessly increases anxiety. If players aren’t eating healthy, getting a full night’s sleep, and drinking less alcohol/coffee, they’re going to experience more anxiety. During the season, players should do their best to live a healthy lifestyle – especially if they’re feeling anxious before a game.

• Knowledge – Far too few baseball players do any research or preparation before a game. But research into who is pitching against them, park factors, defense, etc., can go a long way towards helping a player prepare mentally for a game. Knowledge can lead to confidence, and while no player is guaranteed to succeed even if they know what pitches are coming or what a hitter’s weakness is, knowing what to exploit can be a tremendous benefit.

• Personal Relaxation – The reality is that baseball is a team game made up of individual performances. Players don’t pitch with their teammates standing on the mound, nor do they hit with their other teammates standing with them in the batter’s box. It’s always a one on one showdown. That is why players experiencing anxiety need to also find anything that relaxes them and do it. What the team does before a game is important, but what a player can do to feel relaxed is more so. If the player relaxes by talking to fans, then he should talk to fans. If the player relaxes by sitting alone and listening to “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips, they should do that too. Players need to find out what makes them comfortable and go with it.

By the time any player reaches the MLB, they’ve seen or thrown tens of thousands of pitches, played in dozens of different parks, and worked extremely hard to refine their skills and make it up to the show. There is not much more they can do to practice and change who they are. What they can do, though, is make sure that they’re in the best mental health possible to succeed. That means they need to control their anxiety and mentally prepare for each game. Any player that comes to each at bat 100% focused and ready for each pitch is going to be in a much better position than a player suffering from anxiety and stress, and if they can find a way to mentally prepare, they give themselves the best chance of helping their team and succeeding in any metric (traditional or SABR) that we, as fans, choose to follow.

Author's Bio: 

Ryan Rivera is a sports fan that noticed anxiety affecting his ability to focus on the tasks in front of him. His goal is to make sure that others are able to reduce their stress and anxiety and thrive in every aspect of their life. To learn more, visit www.calmclinic.com.