Baseball Musings 6/10: Nets, Game Theory, and Silver Sluggers!
Hey everyone, welcome back to this week’s edition of Baseball Musings! It’s been a busy week and it looks like it’s gonna be even crazier with the arrival of Yordan Alvarez and the weather finally starting to heat up! Let’s jump right into it.
The Netting Debate, Part Two
I wasn’t going to revisit this issue this week, as I had felt I had made my point thoroughly last week, but then Rob Manfred spoke about the issue and I wanted to discuss it again briefly. In the interview he openly says that he doesn’t expect MLB teams to extend netting this season, sighting structural issues within the parks, which is, to say the least, disappointing. I also don’t buy it. In my non-baseball life aside from working as a brewer, I also work installing lights and staging for various venues including at Coors Field and Mile High Stadium. We have put up similar safety features all the time in a matter of days and in less-structured environments than a ballpark. It could pretty easily be done.
Manfred then proceeds to mention that there have been concerns voiced by those that don’t want to sit behind the netting as justification for not keeping the other fans safe and installing the netting the players want in place. This drives me batty. I feel like it creates a class system in baseball that is not conducive to the sports environment I want my favorite sport to exist within. I was kvetching about this to my girlfriend when writing this and she made a fantastic point. Rather than forgoing netting around the ballparks and telling people where they can sit to be safe, why can’t we put netting around nine-tenths of the space and have a section that is for those who aren’t worried about foul balls and want an unobstructed view. This seems like the perfect compromise. Then families and other fans can have those up-close-and-personal experiences that cement lifelong baseball fandom without having to worry about their safety while those who object can also have their unobstructed view to the field.
Game Theory and Pitch Selection
I promised I would update you on my journey into game theory and how it affects the baseball world. One of my major hypotheses is that game theory could potentially lead to answering many of the questions I have been asking in this column, especially when it comes to the proverbial cat-and-mouse game of pitch selection and hitting approaches. Does a chase pitch in the dirt count more than a regular ball, even if the hitter doesn’t offer at it? Is one pitch sequence that leads to a strikeout against a batter equal to a different pitch sequence that leads to a strikeout against the same batter? Should we punish the pitcher when the process is correct and he makes the right pitch, but the hitter gets a hit anyways? Finally, can we use that information to better understand what goes through a hitter’s (and inversely the pitcher’s head) when they choose what pitch to expect or what pitch to throw? These are all things I think game theory can help us understand better.
I’m just getting started in my journey into learning game theory, but I wanted to share some of the base things that I’ve learned so far as I think they pertain to baseball.
- One of the difficult parts of the statistical revolution is that many of the tools that we use either ignore and discard the idea that the players are human beings. They don’t account for all the different variables that come into play when you are talking about people. Did they have a bad day? Did they sleep well on the plane? Did they drink too much or not get in their normal routine? Is there a pitch they’ve been struggling with lately? Are they still feeling the effects of that last failed at-bat? Game Theory is defined as an attempt to mathematically understand human behavior when we make decisions. While it doesn’t specifically factor in all the variables exactly as I’ve mentioned (and frankly there’s no way to know those variables anyways) it does do a much better job of factoring in that these are human beings we are talking about and there are a myriad of variables that change the way we make decisions every day.
- The most common “game” in Game Theory is what’s called a zero-sum game. It’s also one of the most misused terms in fantasy baseball. A zero-sum game is simply any game in which there are two players and one player gains something and the other loses something of the exact same value, hence zero-sum. You’ll often see them presented like this:
2,-2 -3,3 5,-5 1,-1
Player A chooses a row and Player B chooses a column simultaneously (much like pitching/hitting) and you end up with a resulting score with Player A getting the first number and Player B getting the second number. I mentioned last week that one of the major principles of Game Theory is that you have to consider what is best for your opponent first and foremost. Let’s say you are Player B. Logically Player A isn’t going to pick a row that gets him a negative score and will likely pick the row with the highest score possible in this case Row 2. Now that you know that Player B is kinda stuck. Given that Player A is going to choose Row 2, he is going to end up with a negative score either way and so it’s in his best interest to choose Column 2 so he only loses a single point instead of five. Player A, on the other hand, would never choose Row 1 because this would create the chance that Player B would rightly choose Column 2 and end up gaining three points. Now, this is a fairly unbalanced game here, but it’s pretty evident that the key to winning games with Game Theory is less about what is best for you in a vacuum and more about what is best you once you’ve factored in what is best for your opponent.
- It seems pretty easy to see how this would be useful in pitching and hitting. You often come into a game knowing what your opponents do best (what pitches they hit well, what is a pitcher’s best pitches and when do they like to throw it, etc.) and you have to consider that when deciding what to do during a particular pitch. Now, since a pitcher has multiple pitches in his arsenal and there are multiple zones in baseball to throw to and different approaches a batter can take (contact versus power, pull the ball versus going the opposite way, try to hit it in the air versus on the ground) but I think zero-sum games could be the foundation for perhaps understanding that pitcher/hitter duel that goes on throughout the game. Next week I’m hoping to have some diagrams that might be useful in illustrating what I’m thinking.
AL Silver Sluggers
For the record, you can debate the MVP or the Cy Young awards all you want, but for some reason I always get the most heated about the Silver Sluggers, I don’t know why. I think it’s because when you break down hitters by position it allows a greater celebration of the types of hitters that are typical of that position. I may bounce around a little bit in terms of what statistics I value (what can I say—I’m a fickle beast sometimes) but for the most part, I look at Plate Appearances, wRC+ and wOBA, and then most likely the counting stats.
Catcher – Gary Sanchez (New York Yankees)
This was actually a lot harder than I thought it would be as a couple of catchers make compelling cases including Omar Navaraez (201 PA, 122 wRC+, .344 wOBA, 9 HRs, 28 Runs, 23 RBIs) of the Seattle Mariners and Robinson Chirinos (190 PA, 145 wRC+, .380 wOBA, 10 HRs, 32 Runs, 29 RBIs) of the Houston Astros, but I think it has to be Sanchez here (187 PA, 147 wRC+, .391 wOBA, 19 HRs, 28 Runs, 37 RBIs). The home runs alone do it for me, but the elite wOBA and RBI output seal the deal without question.
First Base – Carlos Santana (Cleveland Indians)
This might be a homer pick on my part, but I do think that he has been the best AL first baseman so far this year. For one thing, first base has been a mess this year in the AL. Luke Voit (272 PA, 133 wRC+, .370 wOBA, 15 HRs, 40 Runs, 39 RBIs) and Edwin Encarnacion (273 PA, 135 wRC+, .363 wOBA, 18 HRs, 44 Runs, 43 RBIs) were also guys I considered here, but in the end I had to go with my boy Santana (268 PA, 139 wRC+, .383 wOBA, 12 HRs, 39 Runs, 39 RBIs). What pushed him even further over the top for me was his .403 OBP which, when combined with the fact that he has walked more than he has struck out so far this season, makes him the most complete hitter of the three in my opinion.
Second Base – Tommy La Stella (Los Angelos Angels)
This was the easiest one by far. No other AL second baseman even comes close to La Stella (232 PA, 148 wRC+, .385 wOBA, 14 HRs, 38 Runs, 38 RBIs) as he leads the next best second baseman by 20 points in wRC+ and 29 points in wOBA. Brandon Lowe (229 PA, 128 wRC+, .365 wOBA, 14 HRs, 29 Runs, 38 RBIs) and DJ LeMahieu (254 PAs, 124 wRC+, .357 wOBA, 7 HRs, 40 Runs, 40 RBIs) are worthy candidates, but end up falling short of La Stella’s incredible 2019 rebirth.
Third Base – Alex Bregman (Houston Astros)
In terms of base numbers, Hunter Dozier (216 PAs, 158 wRC+, .407 wOBA, 11 HRs, 27 Runs, 33 RBIs) has been slightly better in his playing time than Bregman (284 PA, 154 wRC+, .393 wOBA, 18 HRs, 43 Runs, 44 RBIs). But, the 68 plate appearance difference between the two neck-and-neck players makes Bregman a no-brainer to me. This is before we factor in that Bregman has struck out less than he has walked—that’ll always get my vote.
Shortstop – Xander Bogaerts (Boston Red Sox)
Man, shortstop is stacked in the AL. Jorge Polanco (269 PA, 156 wRC+, .405wOBA, 10 HRs, 40 Runs, 33 RBIs), Francisco Lindor (200 PA, 138 wRC+, .381 wOBA, 11 HR, 31 Runs, 27 RBIs), and Carlos Correa (214 PA, 143 wRC+, .377 wOBA, 11 HR, 26 Runs, 35 RBIs) are all worthy candidates. This is one of the times where I am going to weigh the counting stats more than the advanced stats because Bogaerts (277 PAs, 135 wRC+, .377 wOBA, 12 HRs, 50 Runs, 42 RBIs) so thoroughly outpaces every other shortstop in Runs and RBIs while leading them in HRs that he has to be the front-runner.
Outfield – Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels)
Outfield – Austin Meadows (Tampa Bay Rays)
While Meadows (205 PA, 179 wRC+, .432 wOBA, 12 HRs, 31 Runs, 38 RBIs) has missed some time this year, he has been good enough that I’m willing to ignore that (I told you I’m fickle!). In addition, he’s hitting .346 and has 11 doubles to go along with is 12 HRs. It’s hard to argue with that level of production.
Outfield – Michael Brantley (Houston Astros)
After a long internal debate, I decided not to include currently hurt players, so unfortunately this excludes Joey Gallo (214 PA, 170 wRC+, .434 wOBA, 17 HRs, 41 Runs, 41 RBIs) and George Springer (215 PA, 172 wRC+, .421 wOBA, 41 Runs, 43 RBIs) who have been unreal so far this season and so I’m going with Brantley (270 PA, 140 wRC+, .373 wOBA, 10 HRs, 30 Runs, 38 RBIs). This is not meant as a slight at Brantley at all, as he has been incredible this year, hitting a robust .317 with 18 doubles already while striking out less than 10% of the time. He’s well deserving of inclusion here.
NL Silver Sluggers
Catcher – Willson Contreras (Chicago Cubs)
It was between Yasmani Grandal (235 PA, 135 wRC+, .380 wOBA, 13 HR, 30 Runs, 32 RBIs) and Contreras (218 PA, 146 wRC+, .395 wOBA, 13 HRs, 32 Runs, 35 RBIs), but when you factor in that he is hitting .290 with a .395 OBP, it’s pretty easy to go with Contreras.
First Base – Josh Bell (Pittsburgh Pirates)
No offense to Freddie Freeman (281 PA, 158 wRC+, .415 wOBA, 17 HRs, 46 Runs, 41 RBIs), Anthony Rizzo (265 PA, 148 wRC+, .397 wOBA, 16 HRs, 41 Runs, 44 RBIs), or Pete Alonso (261 PA, 148 wRC+, .388 wOBA, 21 HRs, 37 Runs, 46 RBIs), but it has to be Bell (269 PA, 173 wRC+, .433 wOBA, 18 HRs, 46 Runs, 57 RBIs). The superior RBI, wRC+, and wOBA numbers alone do it for me and that’s even before you add in that he has an astonishing 25 doubles and two triples to go along with a .331 AVG. He’s just been out-of-this-world good.
Second Base – Mike Moustakas (Milwaukee Brewers)
No disrespect meant to my main man from the 216 (Cleeevlaaaand!) Derek Dietrich (165 PA, 156 wRC+, .404 wOBA, 17 HRs, 25 Runs, 37 RBIs), who has taken the baseball world by storm recently with his swagger and towering home runs, but Moustakas (251 PAs, 137 wRC+, .382 wOBA, 19 HRs, 41 Runs, 41 RBIs) has been fantastic this season and with almost 100 more plate appearances he’s been better for longer. Add in a near .030 advantage that Moustakas holds over Dietrich in AVG and it seems pretty clear.
Third Base – Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies)
I know Anthony Rendon (216 PA, 169 wRC+, .432 wOBA, 11 HRs, 44 Runs, 44 RBIs) has been otherworldly this year when healthy, but this has to be Arenado (277 PA, 16 HRs, 48 Runs, 55 RBIs) simply to due to the sheer weight of his production level. Add in the fact that he is hitting .332 and striking out only 10.8% of the time and this is a no-brainer.
Shortstop – Trevor Story (Colorado Rockies)
This might be another homer pick for me (I’ve lived in Denver for about five years now and love the Rox. I also wrote about Story earlier this season) but I honestly feel like Story (281 PA, .380 wOBA, 15 HRs, 57 Runs, 43 RBIs) has been as good if not better than his peers Javier Baez (267 PA, 138 wRC+, 16 HRs, 42 Runs, 43 RBIs) and Paul DeJong (266 PA, 130 wRC+, .367 wOBA, 10 HRs, 44 Runs, 29 RBIs). Add in his 11 SBs and .292 AVG and we’re talking about a potential MVP candidate if this continues.
Outfield – Cody Bellinger (Los Angeles Dodgers)
(268 PA, 197 wRC+, .465 wOBA, 20 HRs, 51 Runs, 54 RBIs) I rest my case.
Outfield – Christian Yelich (Milwaukee Brewers)
(254 PA, 192 wRC+, .465 wOBA, 23 HRs, 49 Runs, 53 RBIs) Do I really need to make an argument for these two?
Outfield – Kris Bryant (Chicago Cubs)
You could make a reasonable case for Michael Conforto (238 PA, 139 wRC+, .375 wOBA, 12 HRs, 34 Runs, 29 RBIs), but I think Bryant (270 PA, 140 wRC+, .384 wOBA, 13 HRs, 48 Runs, 36 RBIs) is the clear choice here. That’s before you factor in his 19 doubles and sub-20 K%.
So there you have my Silver Slugger front-runners, a third of the way through the season. Let me know in the comments if you disagree! That’s all I got for this week folks, I’ll see you next week and let me know if there’s anything you’d like me to discuss or look into! Until then have a great week and thank goodness for baseball!
(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire)