I guess they call it “Believeland” for a reason.

Of course, it was the Cleveland Cavaliers who popularized that moniker, back when superstar forward LeBron James helped the Cavs finally deliver a championship to The Land.

Recently, though, “Believeland” best applies to the city’s baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, who are fresh off a historic 22-game win streak. How historic? The Indians saw their streak finally end merely four games short of the all-time record of 26. Baseball has existed for more than a century, folks. The defending American League Champions’ streak captivated the MLB and made the Indians arguably World Series favorites.

When thinking about the Indians’ astonishing feat, you have to bring up the often-controversial phenomenon that cuts through almost every sport and comes with its backers and naysayers: the hot hand theory.

Whether it’s Jordan Spieth sinking four birdies in a row, Steph Curry raining down shots from beyond the arc or the Indians’ 22-game win streak, sports fans debate the idea that these sudden barrages of success are owed to something other than chance.

Hot hand theorists would argue that when athletes experience a string of successes, they are then more likely to replicate that success again and again. After each Cleveland win added to its streak, did the team “heat up” and become stronger?

To many mathematicians, the hot hand theory is a joke. It is such a joke that some have given it a less kind new name: the hot hand fallacy. Mathematicians Amos Tversky, Thomas Gilovich and Robert Vallone co-authored a famous 1985 paper “The Hot Hand in Basketball,” in which they rejected the notion that a player’s likelihood of making a shot depended on whether or not the player had made the previous shot.

The paper dismissed the hot hand theory as a logical blunder popularized by confirmation bias — in other words, fans thought they “saw the hot hand” only because they were already inclined to look for it. Streaks, to these mathematicians, are simply natural and inevitable. When you flip a coin hundreds of times in a row, once in a while you will get a surprising string of tails.

On the other hand, over the past several years, some countervailing evidence has challenged the scientific consensus; a few studies in the 2000s seemed to show that hot hands were real after all. A Cornell University study analyzed free throw attempts and claimed that players are more likely to make their second free throw attempt if they also make their first.

I have an immediate question: Wouldn’t better free throw shooters be more likely to have made their first shot and therefore also be more likely to make their second? Still, significant new mathematical contributions have brought the hot hand theory back into discussion.

So, what do I think? It’s complicated. It’s definitely true that streaks are a necessary byproduct of iterated competitions. No one bats an eye when a team goes on a three-game win streak or when a field goal kicker makes five kicks in a row — and for good reason.

However, there are things I believe mathematics simply cannot measure. As a one-time, fledgling athlete, I have enough experience to say that when you line a double into the gap, you really do feel good the next time you step up to the plate. When you charge the net and put away a volley winner, you feel more confident the next time you attack.

The Indians’ shocking winning streak had to make them feel fine. It invigorated their clubhouse, made each player feel individually empowered and built a thick layer of trust, camaraderie and belief in the team as a collective. Did the Indians really have the hot hand? If thinking that helped them keep winning, then why not?

Ben Goodman is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. “WHAT’S THE CALL?” appears every Friday.

One Comment

  1. Nice work, Goodman – you certainly have a hot hand with these columns

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