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August 20, 2004

Breaking Balls

Derek's Guide to Winning Baseball, an Occasional Series: Part 2

by Derek Zumsteg

I'm back with a second installment of DGtWBaOS. Last time, I wrote about "Don't give the opposing team anything they can't get themselves." Today I'm going to look at a similar concept.

"Don't do what your opponent wants you to do."

That seems obvious, as many of these articles and baseball's other worn coinages of truth are. However, as we'll see, it's not. I'll talk about cards for a minute, because this provides a simple jumping-off point from which we can start discussion.

I decided to write this column while reading David Sklansky's "Theory of Poker" in which he advances his Fundamental Theorem of Poker:

Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents' cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.

Let's say that it's the eighth inning of a game where you're the home team and trail by one. Your next three hitters are:

  • A monster left-handed hitter, helpless against lefties but who plays stellar defense at third
  • A pretty good right handed hitter without a huge platoon split, the DH
  • A good left-handed hitter who's worse against lefties, average outfield defender

Your bench has a modest collection of players with bench skills--a switch-hitting fourth outfielder who can draw a walk and steal a base, a right-handed backup catcher who has historically hit lefties well but is nothing special against either side, and some scrub infielders with gloves.

You face a LaRussa-style manager, who has six relievers, three lefty, three righty. To get the last six outs he's prepared to burn all six of them to secure the best platoon advantages. His plan is to bring a lefty to get the first out against your lefty masher, then a right-hander to at least not give up a home run to the DH, then another lefty for the left-handed outfielder. Then he'll see what happens, but he figures that at that point he's got two outs for sure and can keep on burning through the lineup.

What do you do? Do you swap out the helpless lefty to get a 20% better chance to get on base, costing yourself his glove in the last inning and in possible extra innings? Plus, what if you manage to force the other team into putting a right hander against him next inning, or later? Also, bringing in your best right-handed pinch-hitter means he's not available later, when you might have a chance to bring him in with runners on against a weaker left-handed reliever.

This is where baseball diverges from poker: you can look at your lineup card, and the other guy's lineup card, and know everything. You see all the cards. The only question is how they're going to be used, and when.

It's where a manager can get really tricky. I've debated lineup construction on and off with other Prospectus authors for years, and the answers are unique to each person. Platoon the monster masher against lefties, making him a huge late-inning replacement possibility. Bat another great left-handed bat who doesn't suffer from the split behind him. Scrape for every run in the 8th, especially if they're using their best reliever in the 9th, and if that means you pinch-hit for everyone, so be it.

It's also a situation where managers can outsmart themselves. It's rarely so complicated. You want to win. How do you best use the tools you have to do that? How will the other manager attempt to use the tools they have?

There are really only two questions the manager and the bench coach need to ask themselves: "What will the other guy comes up with that maximizes his advantage and minimizes our chances to win the game?" and "How do we exploit that strategy?"

Even if you're dumb, you could ask yourself "What does the opposing manager want to happen?" and then simply not do that--do anything that's not what the other guy wants. Be crazy, do double-switches, whatever, do anything but walk placidly to the L-shaped gallows.

Take a simple example. You face a team with a tremendous left-handed power hitter on the bench. The guy can't play defense, and can't hit left-handed pitchers.

When would that guy best be used? Against a right-handed pitcher, when the team needs a solo home run, or with men on he can drive home. You can be assured that the opposing manager is dying to see a situation where he can bring this player in to win the game.

Don't let that happen. If you've got a lefty pitcher in setting hitters down, there's no need to play matchups against a right-handed slugger. Even if you give them the semi-intentional walk to face another lefty, you're still doing well. Bringing in a right-handed pitcher to face a right-handed slugger in a critical situation means you get the pinch-hitter. You've not only brought in an unknown (maybe the right hander's off today, or is leaving his curve high and over the plate--you won't know until he's throwing, but you know the lefty was pitching well), you've given the other team exactly the situation they were looking for and at best, gained nothing.

Don't do that! Even when it gets more complicated than that, giving some thought to what the opponent wants will lead you to strategies that allow you to avoid the worst possible outcomes. That way you won't have to face a post-game press conference where you have to explain that you hadn't realized that they could bring that guy in to hit a game-winning pinch-hit double, when they'd been rubbing their hands together all day hoping for just that chance.

Sure, you could get tricky--try and give them a less-than-ideal situation where they might use that bat for a marginal gain while significantly reducing their ability to play defense in the next inning. That's really where you'd hope managers are in their planning, but as long as the state of managers remains where it is today, I'd settle for staying out of the worst situations.

If you're a bear in the woods and see a trap in the middle of a trail, don't step in the trap. Don't do what the other team wants you to do. Win more games.

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