MGL breaks down some words of wisdom from various players, coaches and managers

Posted: December 24, 2016 in Game Theory, Managers, Pitching Strategy

Richard Nichols (@RNicholsLV on Twitter) sent me this link. These are notes that the author, Lee Judge, a Royals blogger for the K.C. Star, took during the season. They reflect thoughts and comments from players, coaches, etc. I thought I’d briefly comment on each one. Hope you enjoy!

Random, but interesting, things about baseball – Lee Judge

▪ If a pitcher does not have a history of doubling up on pickoff throws (two in a row) take a big lead, draw a throw and then steal on the next pitch.

Of course you can do that. But how many times can you get away with it? Once? If the pitcher or one of his teammates or coaches notices it, he’ll pick you off the next time by “doubling up.” Basically by exploiting the pitcher’s non-random and thus exploitable strategy, the runner becomes exploitable himself. A pitcher, of course, should be picking a certain percentage of the time each time he goes into the set position, based on the likelihood of the runner stealing and the value of the steal attempt. That “percentage” must be randomized by the pitcher and it “resets” each time he throws a pitch or attempts a pickoff.

By “randomize” I mean the prior action, pick or no pick, cannot affect the percentage chance of a pick. If a pitcher is supposed to pick 50% prior to the next pitch he must do so whether he’s just attempted a pickoff 0, 1, 2, or 10 times in a row. The runner can’t know that a pickoff is more or less likely based on how many picks were just attempted. In fact you can tell him, “Hey every time I come set, there’s a 50% (or 20%, or whatever) chance I will attempt to pick you off,” and there’s nothing he can do to exploit that information.

For example, if he decides that he must throw over 50% of the time he comes set (in reality the optimal % changes with the count), then he flips a mental coin (or uses something – unknown to the other team – to randomize his decision, with a .5 mean). What will happen on the average is that he won’t pick half the time, 25% of the time he’ll pick once only, 12.5% of the time he’ll pick exactly twice, 25% of the time he’ll pick at least twice, etc.

Now, the tidbit from the player or coach says, “does not have a history of doubling up.” I’m not sure what that means. Surely most pitchers when they do pick, will pick once sometimes and twice sometimes, etc. Do any pitchers really never pick more than once per pitch? If they do, I would guess that it’s because the runner is not really a threat and the one-time pick is really a pick with a low percentage. If a runner is not much of a threat to run, then maybe the correct pick percentage is 10%. If that’s the case, then they will not double-up 99% of the time and correctly so. That cannot be exploited, again, assuming that a 10% rate is optimal for that runner in that situation. So while it may look like they never double up, they do in fact double up 1% of the time, which is correct and cannot be exploited (assuming the 10% is correct for that runner and in that situation).

Basically what I’m saying is that this person’s comment is way to simple and doesn’t really mean anything without putting it into context as I explain above.

▪ Foul balls with two strikes can indicate a lack of swing-and-miss stuff; the pitcher can get the batters to two strikes, but then can’t finish them off.

Not much to say here. Some pitchers have swing-and-miss stuff and others don’t, and everything in-between. You can find that out by looking at…uh…their swing-and-miss percentages (presuming a large enough sample size to give you some minimum level of certainty). Foul balls with two strikes? That’s just silly. A pitcher without swing-and-miss stuff will get more foul balls and balls in play with two strikes. That’s a tautology. He’ll also get more foul balls and balls in play with no strikes, one strike, etc.

▪ Royals third-base coach Mike Jirschele will walk around the outfield every once in a while just to remind himself how far it is to home plate and what a great throw it takes to nail a runner trying to score.

If my coach has to do that I’m not sure I want him coaching for me. That being said, whatever little quirks he has or needs to send or hold runners the correct percentage of time is fine by me. I don’t know that I would be teaching or recommending that to my coaches – again, not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with it.

Bottom line is that he better know the minimum percentages that runners need to be safe in any given situation (mostly # of outs) – i.e. the break-even points – and apply them correctly to the situation (arm strength and accuracy etc.) in order to make optimal decisions. I would surely be going over those numbers with my coaches from time to time and then evaluating his sends and holds to make sure he’s not making systematic errors or too many errors in general.

▪ For the most part, the cutter is considered a weak contact pitch; the slider is considered a swing-and-miss pitch.

If that’s confirmed by pitch f/x, fine. If it’s not, then I guess it’s not true. Swing-and-miss is really just a subset of weak contact and weak contact is a subset of contact which is a subset of a swing. The result of a swing depends on the naked quality of the pitch, where it is thrown, and the count. So while for the most part (however you want to define that – words are important!) it may be true, surely it depends on the quality of each of the pitches, on what counts they tend to be thrown, how often they are thrown at those counts, and the location they are thrown to. Pitches away from the heart of the plate tend to be balls and swing-and-miss pitches. Pitches nearer the heart tend to be contacted more often, everything else being equal.

▪ With the game on the line and behind in the count, walk the big-money guys; put your ego aside and make someone else beat you.

Stupid. Just. Plain. Stupid. Probably the dumbest thing a pitcher or manager can think/do in a game. I don’t even know what it means and neither do they. So tie game in the 9th, no one on base, 0 outs, count is 1-0. Walk the batter? That’s what he said! I can think of a hundred stupid examples like that. A pitcher’s approach changes with every batter and every score, inning, outs, runners, etc. A blanket statement like that, even as a rule of thumb, is Just. Plain. Dumb. Any interpretation of that by players and coaches can only lead to sub-optimal decisions – and does. All the time. Did I say that one is stupid?

▪ A pitcher should not let a hitter know what he’s thinking; if he hits a batter accidentally he shouldn’t pat his chest to say “my bad.” Make the hitter think you might have drilled him intentionally and that you just might do it again.

O.K. To each his own.

▪ Opposition teams are definitely trying to get into Yordano Ventura’s head by stepping out and jawing with him; anything to make him lose focus.

If he says so. I doubt much of that goes on in baseball. Not that kind of game. Some, but not much.

▪ In the big leagues, the runner decides when he’s going first-to-third; he might need a coach’s help on a ball to right field — it’s behind him — but if the play’s in front of him, the runner makes the decision.

Right, we teach that in Little League (a good manager that is). You teach your players that they are responsible for all base running decisions until they get to third. Then it’s up to the third base coach. It’s true that the third base coach can and should help the runner on a ball hit to RF, but ultimately the decision is on the runner whether to try and take third.

Speaking of taking third, while the old adage “don’t make the first or third out at third base” is a good rule of thumb, players should know that it doesn’t mean, “Never take a risk on trying to advance to third.” It means the risk has to be low (like 10-20%), but that the risk can be twice as high with 0 outs as with 2 outs. So really, the adage should be, “Never make the third out at third base, but you can sometimes make the first out at third base.”

You can also just forget about the first out part of that adage. Really, the two-out break-even point is almost exactly in between the first-out and one-out one. In other words, with no outs, you need to be safe at third around 80% of the time, with one out, around 70%, and with two outs around 90%. Players should be taught that and not just the “rule of thumb.” They should also be taught that the numbers change with trailing runners, the pitcher, and who the next batter or batters are. For example, with a trailing runner, making the third out is really bad but making the first out where the trailing runner can advance is a bonus.

▪ Even in a blowout there’s something to play for; if you come close enough to make the other team use their closer, maybe he won’t be available the next night.

I’m pretty sure the evidence suggests that players play at their best (more or less) regardless of the score. That makes sense under almost any economic or cognitive theory of behavior since players get paid big money to have big numbers. Maybe they do partially because managers and coaches encourage them to do so with tidbits like that. I don’t know.

Depending on what they mean by blowout, what they’re saying is that, say you have a 5% chance of winning a game down six runs in the late innings. Now say you have a 20% chance of making it a 3-run or less game, and that means that the opponent closer comes into the game. And say that him coming into the game gives you another 2% chance of winning tomorrow because he might not be available, and an extra 1% the day after that (if it’s the first game in a series). So rather than a 5% win expectancy, you actually have a 5% plus 20% * 3% or, 5.6% WE. Is that worth extra effort? To be honest, a manager and coach is supposed to teach his players to play hard (within reason) regardless of the score for two reasons: One, because it makes for better habits when the game is close and two, at exactly what point is the game a blowout (Google the sorites paradox)?

▪ If it’s 0-2, 1-2 and 2-2, those are curveball counts and good counts to run on. That’s why pitchers often try pickoffs in those counts.

On the other hand, 0-2 is not a good count to run on because of the threat of the pitchout. As it turns out, the majority of SB attempts (around 68%) occur at neutral counts. Only around 16% of all steal attempts occur at those pitchers’ counts. So whoever said that is completely wrong.

Of course pitchers should (and do) attempt more pickoffs the greater the chance of a steal attempt. That also tends to make it harder to steal (hence the game theory aspect).

That being said, some smart people (e.g., Professor Ted Turocy of Chadwick Baseball Bureau) believe that there is a Nash equilibrium between the offense and defense with respect to base stealing (for most players – not at the extremes) such that neither side can exploit the other by changing their strategy. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I think Professor Turocy may have a paper on this. You can check it out on the web or contact him.

▪ Don’t worry about anyone’s batting average until they have 100 at-bats.

How about “Don’t worry about batting average…period.” In so many ways this is wrong. I would have to immediately fire whoever said that if it was a coach, manager or executive.

▪ It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row; teams change starting pitchers every night and catching three different pitchers having a down night is not the norm.

Whoever said this should be fired sooner than the one above. As in, before they even finished that colossally innumerate sentence.

▪ At this level, “see-it-and-hit” will only take you so far. The best pitchers are throwing so hard you have to study the scouting reports and have some idea of what’s coming next.

If that’s your approach at any level you have a lot to learn. That goes for 20 or 50 years ago the same as it does today. If pitchers were throwing maybe 60 mph not so much I guess. But even at 85 you definitely need to know what you’re likely to get at any count and in any situation from that specific pitcher. Batters who tell you that they are “see-it-and-hit-it” batters are lying to you or to themselves. There is no such thing in professional baseball. Even the most unsophisticated batter in the world knows that at 3-0, no outs, no runners on, his team is down 6 runs, he’s likely to be getting 100% fastballs.

▪ If a pitcher throws a fastball in a 1-1 count, nine out of 10 times, guess fastball. But if it’s that 10th time and he throws a slider instead, you’re going to look silly.

WTF? If you go home expecting your house to be empty but there are two giraffes and a midget, you’re going to be surprised.

▪ Good hitters lock in on a certain pitch, look for it and won’t come off it. You can make a guy look bad until he gets the pitch he was looking for and then he probably won’t miss it.

Probably have to fire this guy too. That’s complete bullshit. Makes no sense from a game-theory perspective or from any perspective for that matter. So just never throw him that pitch right? Then he can’t be a good hitter. But now if you never throw him the pitch he’s looking for, he’ll stop looking for it, and will instead look for the alternative pitch you are throwing him. So you’ll stop throwing him that pitch and then…. Managers and hitting coaches (and players) really (really) need a primer on game theory. I am available for the right price.

▪ According to hitting coach Dale Sveum, hitters should not give pitchers too much credit; wait for a mistake and if the pitcher makes a great pitch, take it. Don’t start chasing great pitches; stick to the plan and keep waiting for that mistake.

Now why didn’t I think of that!

▪ The Royals are not a great off-speed hitting club, so opposition pitchers want to spin it up there.

Same as above. Actually, remember this: You cannot tell how good or bad a player or team is at hitting any particular pitch by looking at the results. You can only tell by how often they get each type of pitch. Game theory tells us that the results of all the different pitches (type, location, etc.) will be about the same to any hitter. What changes depending on that hitter’s strengths and weaknesses are the frequencies. And this whole, “Team is good/bad at X” is silly. It’s about the individual players of course. I’m pretty sure there was at least one hitter on the team who is good at hitting off-speed.

Also, never evaluate or define “good hitting” based on batting average which most coaches and managers do even in 2016. I don’t have to tell you, dear sophisticated reader, that. However, you should also not define good or bad hitting on a pitch level based on OPS or wOBA (presumably on contact) either. You need to include pitches not put into play and you need to incorporate count. For example, at a 3-ball count there is a huge premium on not swinging at a ball. Your result on contact is not so important. At 2-strike counts, not taking a strike is also especially important. Whenever you see pitch level numbers without including balls not swung at, or especially only on balls put into play (which is usually the case), be very wary of those numbers. For example, a good off-speed hitting player will tend to have good strike zone recognition (and not necessarily good results on contact) skills because many more off-speed pitches are thrown in pitchers’ counts and out of the strike zone.

▪ According to catcher Kurt Suzuki, opposition pitchers should not try to strike out the Royals. Kansas City hitters make contact and a pitcher that’s going for punchouts might throw 100 pitches in five innings.

Wait. If they are a good contact team, doesn’t that mean that you can try and strike them out without running up your pitch count? Another dumb statement. Someone should tell Mr. Suzuki that pitch framing is really important.

▪ If you pitch down in the zone you can use the whole plate; any pitch at the knees is a pretty good pitch (a possible exception is down-and-in to lefties). If you pitch up in the zone you have to hit corners.

To some extent that’s true though it’s (a lot) more complicated than that. What’s probably more important is that when pitching down in the zone you want to pitch more away and when pitching up in the zone more inside. By the way, is it true lefties like (hit better) the down-and-in pitch more than righties? No, it is not. Where does that pervasive myth come from? Where do all the hundreds of myths that players, fans, coaches, managers, and pundits think are true come from?

▪ If you pitch up, you have to be above the swing path.

Not really sure what that means? Above the swing “path?” Swing path tends to follow the pitch so that doesn’t make too much sense. “Path” implies angle of attack and to say “above” or “below” an angle of attach doesn’t really make sense. Maybe he means, “If you are going to pitch high, pitch really high?” Or, “If the batter tends to be a high ball hitter, pitch really high?”

▪ Numbers without context might be meaningless; or worse — misleading

I don’t know what that means. Anything might be misleading or worthless without context. Words, numbers, apple pie, dogs, cats…

▪ All walks are not equal: a walk at the beginning of an inning is worth more than a walk with two outs, a walk to Jarrod Dyson is worth more than a walk to Billy Butler.

Correct. I might give this guy one of the other guys’ (that I fired) jobs. Players, especially pitchers (but batters and fielders too), should always know the relative value of the various offensive events depending on the batter, pitcher, score, inning, count, runners, etc., and then tailor their approach to those values. This is one of the most important things in baseball.

▪ So when you look at a pitcher’s walks, ask yourself who he walked and when he walked them.

True. Walks should be weighed towards bases open, 2 outs, sluggers, close games, etc. If not, and the sample is large, then the pitcher is likely either doing something wrong or he has terrible command/control or both. For example, Greg Maddux went something like 10 years before he walked his first pitcher.

▪ When a pitcher falls behind 2-0 or 3-1, what pitch does he throw to get back in the count? Can he throw a 2-0 cutter, sinker or slider, or does he have to throw a fastball down the middle and hope for the best?

All batters, especially in this era of big data, should be acutely aware of a pitcher’s tendencies against their type of batter in any given situation and count. One of the most important ones is, “Does he have enough command of his secondary pitches (and how good is his fastball even when the batter knows it’s coming) to throw them in hitter’s counts, especially the 3-2 count?”

▪ Hitters who waggle the bat head have inconsistent swing paths.

I never heard that before. Doubt it is anything useful.

▪ The more violent the swing, the worse the pitch recognition. So if a guy really cuts it loose when he swings and allows his head to move, throw breaking stuff and change-ups. If he keeps his head still, be careful.

Honestly, if that’s all you know about a batter, someone is not doing their homework. And again, there’s game theory that must be accounted for and appreciated. Players, coaches and managers are just terrible at understanding this very important part of baseball especially the batter/pitcher matchup. If you think you can tell a pitcher to throw a certain type of pitch in a certain situation (like if the batter swings violently throw him off-speed), then surely the batter can and will know that too. If he does, which he surely will – eventually – then he basically knows what’s coming and the pitcher will get creamed!

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