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January 10, 2014

BP Unfiltered

Rereading Nate Silver: 17. The Holes In Adam Dunn's Swing

by Sam Miller

In which Nate drops like 15 Matrix Reloaded references.

May 21, 2003

Abstract: Nate takes one of the less revolutionary parts of Moneyball--that “that every hitter (excepting Scott Hatteberg, Pickin' Machine) has a hole in his swing, and that the hole will inevitably be discovered and exploited in repeated trials”--and applies it to Adam Dunn to see whether such a discovery and exploitation can be found in the statistical record. First finding evidence that Dunn struggles against pitchers who have seen him before, then finding stronger evidence that Dunn does not struggle against pitchers who have seen him before, Nate ultimately proposes that game theory presents great challenges for sabermetrics, but that creative sabermetricians might nevertheless utilize it. Indeed, to some degree he prophesies the use (and misuse) of PITCHf/x data for thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of individual player profiles that have been written on sabr-friendly sites like this one in the decade since.

Key quote: “It's possible that Lewis is really on to something with his emphasis on game theory. Maybe not Dunn, but are there certain types of hitters who flounder or excel in repeated trials against the same opponent? Are there certain types of pitchers? Do they stick around long enough for us to identify them? Or is all this talk about game theory the modern equivalent of clutch hitting, something that seems intuitive but is really just another way to get around our reluctance to attribute events to chance?”

Key out-of-context quote: “Where can I get some of that orgasm cake?”

Moneyball: Not long ago, I also used the hole-in-the-swing passage to launch an article. (It also was about game-theory, as it turns out. And it turned out to be fun, so go reread it.) Somebody messaged me afterward: “Don’t think Moneyball is quoted enough in that context. Gets quoted for other stuff obvi but not the real basebally stuff.” This is so true. Moneyball, it seems to me, has largely been reduced to political tract, but in fact there’s so much color in it that has nothing to do with whether Jack Morris should be in the Hall of Fame; color that would have fit into any great book about baseball, and that gets lost in the impact (and invective) of its thesis. Among the many outstanding passages of Moneyball that have little or nothing to do with moneyball, this is probably my favorite:

A few days earlier, Mabry had complained to [A’s video coordinator Dan Feinstein] about his lack of playing time, and Feiny had tried to help him out. “You know John,” he’d said, “maybe you want to try taking a few pitches.”

That night Mabry had played--with Feiny’s voice in his head. The first time he came to the plate he took the first five pitches he saw--till the count was full: 3-2. The next pitch he took a giant hack at, and struck out. The television camera read his lips as he walked back to the dugout. “Fucking Feinstein,” he said. Mabry wound up walking twice and one of those walks led to a run that won the game; still, it was unclear whether he had forgiven Feiny--or even if he thought Feiny needed forgiving.

Mabry, too, is playing tonight. He sees the tape of Moyer, and wants to discuss him.

“He preys on your aggression,” says Mabry, making whatever Moyer does sound slightly vampirish. “He makes you think you can hit pitches you can’t even reach.”

“If it’s not a strike, how hard is it to lay off?” asks Feiny. He’s still staring into his own screen, watching Alex Rodriguez at bat.

“Oh, it’s hard,” says Mabry. On the screen Moyer doesn’t seem to be pitching so much as tossing. I’ve seen less arc on ceremonial first pitches.

“Just lay off the bad pitches, John,” says Feinstein teasingly.

“Feiny,” says Mabry testily. “You ever been in a major league batter’s box?”

Feiny doesn’t answer.

“I’m telling you,” says Mabry, turning back. He points to the screen, on which Moyer tosses another cream puff. “You see that coming at you and it looks like you can hit it three miles.”

“So just don’t swing, John,” says Feiny.

“Yeah,” says Mabry, turning around to glare at Feiny. “Well, the time you don’t swing is the time he throws you three strikes.”

“He is a really smart guy,” agrees Hatty, looking to settle the dispute. “He’s tough to plan for.”

But Mabry is still staring at Feiny, who is refusing to stare back. “Feiny, have you ever faced a major league pitcher?”

“No, John,” says Feiny, wearily, “I’ve never faced a major league pitcher.”

“I didn’t think so,” says Mabry. “I didn’t think Feiny had ever faced a major league pitcher.”

That looked as if it might be a conversation-stopper. Then David Justice walks in. He sees that they’ve been watching the tape of Moyer and knows instantly what they’ve been arguing about. They’re arguing about the price of greed in the batter’s box. Your only hope against a pitcher with Moyer’s command, Justice says, is to give up on the idea that you are going to get rich and satisfy yourself with just making a living. “You think you can hit it out,” says Justice, “but you can’t hit it at all.”

“Exactly,” says Mabry.

“Which is why you don’t swing at it,” says Feiny.

Tables: 2
Graphs: 3
Equations: 1

On the Nate Silver Must-Read Scale: 2

(reminder: 1 is low on the scale; 3 is the highest point on the scale.)

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article.

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