Sports fans understand inertia; after all, it’s Red Thursday, Blue October is just around the corner, and we’re not moving from the couch. But what about the teams we’re watching? How much does momentum matter? Commentator Victor Wishna propels us through the theories in this month’s edition of A Fan’s Notes.
In physics, it’s a simple enough equation: mass times velocity equals momentum. But in sports, momentum—building it, sustaining it—is a much more complicated concept. It puts the “mo” in mojo, bandwagons grind to a halt without it, and in a context where what matters is what comes next, you either have it or you don’t.
Right now in Kansas City, the Chiefs have it. They survived training camp without major injuries and managed a perfect record in the preseason—which, of course, is meaningless, except it’s the first time that’s happened since 1969, the last and only season the Chiefs went on to win a Super Bowl. So, yeah, following a solid, season-opening win at Houston, which does count, the Chiefs come home to face the Denver Broncos in primetime with plenty of momentum.
Our beloved Royals are another story. No, really—last fall, the story was all about unthinkable possibilities made real, about playing with house money, and beating the odds.
This September, the Royals have the best record in the league and a lock on their division, but the sky is falling. Why? Momentum. After a season of steady success, they seem to have lost it, and at just the wrong time. As the great baseball theorist Derek Jeter has said, “The best teams make the postseason, but the hottest team wins the championship.”
There’s a formula for that, too: force divided by surface area equals pressure.
But here’s the thing: How the ball bounces and bodies crash may be physics…but otherwise the idea of sports momentum is all in our heads. Cognitive psychologists have long since disproven the notion of the “hot hand,” that mythical belief that someone on a roll—say a gambler or a three-point shooter—is likely to stay hot. Even the sabermetric masterminds at Baseball Prospectus agree it’s bupkis. Whenever there’s a walk-off win or a double-digit blowout, bet on the loser—statistics show they’re more likely than the winner to win their next game.
When a player or a team goes on a streak, hot or cold, it’s a function of randomness and probability. Even when the Royals set a franchise record with 19 consecutive losses, just ten summers ago, economists noted it wasn’t that surprising for a team that bad. What’s remarkable is that the 2015 Royals have lost dozens of games but never more than four in a row. October’s short-series format is a crapshoot, but that profile of consistency is comforting.
Meanwhile, a win tonight at Arrowhead means the Chiefs will finally get that albatross named Peyton Manning off their backs, beat the Broncos for the first time in four seasons, and get an early leg up in the AFC West. And they’ll have all the momentum—until the next game.
And even if the Royals’ cruise control is faulty for now, the course is clear. With a couple weeks left, they still cling to home-field advantage, their “magic number” is down to single digits, and—who knows?—maybe they’ll even fix Johnny Cueto. A stumble here or there just means it might be a couple days longer before the Royals clinch their division for the first time in thirty years.
And won’t that be a momentous occasion.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood, Ks.