On Game Theory, 0-2 Meatballs, and You

There was an interesting read kicking around baseball twitter this week, written by A’s fan and blogger Ken Arneson. In it, the computer scientist wonders about a great many things, the most interesting — to me — is his section on pitch selection. It’s Game Theory, I guess, but Arneson lays out four simple criteria for pitchers as they make pitch decisions:

  1. Choose a pitch the batter is likely to predict incorrectly
  2. Choose a pitch the pitcher is likely to throw with good speed, location, and movement
  3. Choose a pitch which will result in a suboptimal swing path, resulting either in a miss or weak contact
  4. Choose a pitch which, if not put in play, worsens the batter’s Prediction State for the next pitch

Makes sense, right? Easier said than done but it at least provides some food for thought. Not long after reading this, and for reasons that are entirely my own, I found myself watching highlights of old A.J. Burnett and Josh Johnson starts. Two power pitchers with filthy stuff, the videos or great starts from yesteryear showed what happens when pitchers like this have it all working.

One thing I observed made me think of the checklist above: both pitchers were able to freeze batters with 0-2 fastballs. Rather than waste pitches, these fastballs were seemingly thrown right down Main Street, middle/middle, over the heart of the plate.

Any pitch thrown in that location could be best described as “suboptimal” but, for pitches with stuff to spare on their best days, it worked as an effective pitch. They froze batters who twisted themselves into knots worrying about the hammer or an elevated fastball, the catalyst for chases.

This brought me to Baseball Savant and then it brought me here. I come bearing GIFs.

As one might expect, just about any leaderboard you can create in 2014 features Clayton Kershaw’s name right at the top. The Dodgers ace froze three batters with pitches down the middle this year, though not all lock ups were created equal. Sometimes you burn a fastball straight down broadway because the hitter has no intention of swinging.

The leaderboard features its fair share of pitchers peppered throughout the mix, but it doesn’t make these highlights any less hilarious. Kershaw’s other 0-2 highlights feature more polished hitters shaking their heads in bewilderment.

Kershaw earned three of these gift strikes this season, the same number as Nationals reliever Drew Storen. The former closer’s slider left more than its share of hitters’ mouths agape, especially when paired with his changeup, a weapon he turned to more often in 2014 than ever before.

This pitch is the result of a nice setup by Storen, throwing two straight fastballs (two seamers) on the inside half, tying Hechavarria up. It left the batter vulnerable to the front hip slider and it Storen ticks at least three of the points raised by Arneson as listed above.

Storen’s slider came after two straight changeups, one for a called strike on the outside corner and one for a swing-and-miss, over the plate but below the strike zone. The pitcher shook off a few signs, planting further doubt in the mind of batter Jace Peterson. “He feels good about his changeup, right? I’m not seeing it and here comes another one!”


My favorite 0-2 take this year came from a very unlikely source. Carlos Gomez ranks as one of the most aggressive hitters in baseball. Over the last two seasons, he holds the fourth-highest swing rate overall and the second-highest swing rate for pitches inside the strike zone.

On July 30th, he stepped in against David Price in what would be his final start as a member of the Rays before joining [scans notes] the Tigers??? The Rays broadcast booth set the stage with some terrific foreshadowing, for our purposes anyway.

“So we are under way, and Gomez comes out swinging as he has throughout this series.” Dewayne Staats intones as Gomez swings and misses at a first pitch changeup down and away.

“It will be interesting, this freewheeling Milwaukee Brewers offense against David Price who POUNDS the strike zone as well as anybody. This is going to be a fun battle to watch.” explains Rays analyst Brian Anderson, after Gomez fouls an 0-1 curveball down the third base line.

And then Price does this:

This is straight out of the Rays pitching backwards playbook. Gomez, who never met a fastball he didn’t like, can only walk back to the dugout after a good, long conversation with himself.

Hitting is a complicated business. Synthesizing real time information with background knowledge on a pitcher can make for overthinking and simply taking yourself out of an at bat. Some hitters are happy to see ball, hit ball.

The Rays aren’t the only team to preach pitching backwards, throwing offspeed pitches in fastball counts and vice versa, but they’ve certainly developed a reputation for doing it. It’s an appealing option but runs counter what others in the game say: a good fastball is your best pitch. The potential for making a mistake and presenting the hitter with a more hittable option remains very real, which introduces some downside to the “keep’em guessing” model of pitching.

So what’s the main point here? While these isolated examples show what it looks like when Game Theory and the physical execution of a plan come together at the same time, are they instructive when looking for an edge in the pitcher/batter match up?

How, given the “not a simulation” reality of actual baseball and the ingrained nature of pitch selection, does one weigh the value of surprise against the likelihood of poor execution? More pressing in today’s game, how can hitters compete in an interaction already stacked against them?

There are more questions listed above than answers. Because the answers are not coming easy – or cheap. Whichever team succeeds in reprogramming and rewiring their ballplayers just might benefit in the long run (one might argue the Rays already have.) The next frontier of baseball research stands before us, I suppose. Forever limited by the stubborn humanity of the players talented enough to reach the game’s highest levels as it might be.

Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

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Did he lay out 5, and you chose not to list one of them, or did he really only lay out 4?