Hitters in The Zone: Locked in or just lucky?

Hitters in The Zone: Locked in or just lucky?

Hitters in The Zone: Locked in or just lucky?
In the aftermath of his rare feat, Josh Hamilton tried to attach an explanation.

It was May 8, and Hamilton was standing on the field, where he had just become the 16th player in Major League history to hit four home runs in a game. The Rangers outfielder told a television interviewer about "staying small," not "trying to do too much," and "taking the barrel of the bat to the ball."

The clichés continued to flow in the coming days as Hamilton steamed ahead on streaks of nine home runs in six games and 16 homers in 23 games. He discussed how the game had slowed down and he was seeing the ball well. He claimed to be keeping his thoughts to a minimum.

His coaches and teammates expressed mostly awe in response.

"He's such a quality player, and when he gets locked in, it's poetry in motion," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "And right now, he's locked in."

That term, along with "on fire" or "in the zone," is used regularly to describe players who are hot. But the phenomenon, put on such gaudy display by Hamilton, escapes easy understanding. It is difficult to put into words, and even harder to put into numbers.

For a former player like Shawn Green, hot streaks are glaringly real. For experts who study the issue, like Texas Tech University professor Alan Reifman, they exist as a fluctuation in the statistics, but are merely descriptive rather than predictive, providing little indication of what's to come.

In 2002, Green hit four homers in a game and 24 in a 43-game stretch, making him one of the few who can identify with Hamilton's torrid run. He also can articulate the experience better than most, having covered the issue in his book, "The Way of Baseball: Finding Stillness at 95 mph."

Green, who has studied Eastern philosophy and practiced meditation, said the game does slow down. The ball looks bigger. Focus sharpens. Distractions melt away. The pitcher becomes less an adversary than a participant.

"You're fully aware and alert," Green said. "You're not up there thinking, but you're completely present in the activity you're doing, and everything happens on its own."

It's something that isn't dependent on knowledge of Eastern philosophy, he added. Players who enjoy sustained success, "understand it experientially -- not necessarily the concept, but they live it and know how to get themselves there instinctively."

It seems logical to say players can find a zone that allows them to raise their performances temporarily. It's an appealing idea, according to Reifman, who recently published a book, "Hot Hand: The Statistics Behind Sports' Greatest Streaks," and also authors a blog on the subject.

"We like orderliness. We like to detect a pattern. We don't like to think everything around us is random," Reifman said. "We don't like to think athletes are like coins, and in many ways we're not coins.

"What's so interesting is the way the performance of athletes seems to match what you'd expect from coin flipping."

A series of flips can yield a wide range of outcomes, including long streaks of either heads or tails, yet 50-50 odds exist in every individual flip. That doesn't change no matter how long a streak continues, and that basic idea seems to hold true in baseball.

"The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball," written by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, Andrew Dolphin and Pete Palmer, is one of the game's statistical bibles. It includes a study of MLB play-by-play data from 2000-03 that seeks to identify how players with the hottest five-game streaks did in their next game and next five games, compared with their expected performance.

The study found that such players gained a statistically significant but very minor boost, concluding, "what little predictive value there may be is so small as to be relatively unimportant, in our opinion."

When a player's baseline performance is high, his streaks can be remarkable. Think Hamilton or Joe DiMaggio. Reifman favors something the late scholar Stephen J. Gould once wrote about DiMaggio: "Long streaks always are, and must be, a matter of extraordinary luck imposed upon great skill."

Players often try to nurture the luck element with superstition, but Green believes that struggling to control the zone -- something he described in the book as "a force of nature" -- is pointless. Instead, he took a more disciplined approach, turning to his routine of hitting off a tee. By losing himself in that routine, he would be prepared for the zone when, as he wrote, "it passed through me as it pleased."

That's the sort of hands-off approach Hamilton hinted at, and Green agreed that a stretch of games like Hamilton's wouldn't be possible with a lot of thought. He likened finding the zone to waiting for fruit to ripen.

"When it's ready, it's ready," he said. "If you start tugging it too soon and force it, it's never going to happen."

Based on his experience, Green harbors no doubt about the zone's existence. While the data doesn't back up that view, it also leaves some wiggle room.

"The Book" includes the caveat that it is dealing with streaks in general, not every case individually. It does not deny the possibility that those within the game can identify a small number of players "who are truly on or off-kilter enough for their streaks to have some significantly large [larger than we see in the entire group] predictive value."

Debate on the issue continues in statistical circles, but even if the zone isn't real, that doesn't mean a player's perception of it isn't.

"Who is to doubt that that's what they're actually experiencing?" Reifman said. "And maybe that does contribute somewhat, to make them more relaxed or something. It's just that empirically, these streaks don't tend to occur any more than would be expected by chance."

Andrew Simon is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.