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Hitting streaks spread success

A baseball player’s hitting streak may boost teammates’ batting averages

These baseball all-stars played in 1937. Fourth from the left is Joe DiMaggio, who went on a 56-game hitting streak in 1941. That record has not been broken.

Harris & Ewing

For baseball players who want to increase their batting success, a new study offers this tip: Get on a team with a slugger. When one player experiences a hitting streak, his teammates do better as well, according to the new analysis of baseball stats. (In baseball, as in life, some people are improved by the company they keep!)

The scientists didn’t identify the reason for this link. However, the pattern is real, they reported this past December in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

“We don’t prove that hitting is contagious,” Joel Bock told Science News. “But the data show there is something there.” Bock, who worked on the new study, is an engineer at Scalaton. It’s a software engineering firm in La Mesa, Calif.

In the study, a streak was defined as when a player hit the ball and reached base in 30 games in a row. Since 1945, major leaguers have racked up 28 hitting streaks. (In 1945, Boston Braves player Tommy Holmes went on a 37-game streak. The most recent streak occurred in 2011. That’s when Dan Uggla, of the Atlanta Braves, hit safely in 33 straight games.)

Bock and his collaborators then studied the records of the sluggers’ teammates. Those players’ batting averages went up, too — but only during the streak.

A batting average measures how well a player is hitting. For example: Say a player goes to bat 10 times. If he hits a ball and reaches base safely three times and makes an out the other seven, then his batting average over those 10 at-bats is .300.

Bock and his collaborators looked at the records of players who played regularly while someone on their team was on a hitting streak. The researchers found that on average, batting averages of the sluggers’ teammates’ went up by about 11 points — but only during a streak. That means if a player normally was hitting .250, he hit .261 during the streak.

Jeremy Arkes, who did not work on the study, finds its results “plausible.” This economist at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., says many factors may explain why hitting seems to be contagious. A batter on a hot streak may reach a base a lot and distract a pitcher, for example. That might cause the pitcher to make mistakes and throw more hittable balls to later batters. Or teammates may be enthusiastic about a slugger’s streak. That enthusiasm could provide “extra excitement and extra purpose to playing,” Arkes says. And that could boost the teammates’ performance.

Future studies may help explain why hitting streaks seem to be contagious — and Bock welcomes those studies. “There is some sort of mechanism going on, but I’m not sure I know what it is,” he says.

Power Words

streak A continuous period of specified success or luck.

batting average The average performance of a batter, expressed as a ratio of a batter’s safe hits per official times at bat.

contagious Spread from one person or organism to another by direct or indirect contact.

economics The branch of knowledge concerned with the production, consumption and transfer of wealth.

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