For my first article as an official
Kevin writer for this site, I thought I’d start by offering some insight into how I view the world, and baseball, differently than some, if not most people. You see, for the past several years the thing I have spent most of my free time doing is reading about, discussing and playing poker. I’ve supported myself in between jobs, paid for the majority of my youngest’s baby needs (crib, changing table, etc) and financed two cross-city moves with my winnings in that time. If I’m not at home, at work or watching a movie, I’m probably playing poker.
One of my favorite poker players, Phil Galfond, tweeted this recently.
The best thing poker teaches you is to not be results-oriented, because it's crucial for good decision making in all aspects of life.— Phil Galfond (@PhilGalfond) March 2, 2019
The worst thing poker teaches you is to not be results-oriented, because everyone else in the world is and it's very annoying.
My first reaction to this was to laugh because of how true it is. As I started to think about it more, however, I realized that had I not spent the countless hours dedicated to poker that I have, I would approach most things differently. The point of all of this is to discuss the way I watch a baseball game, and how it may (or may not) be different than you.
So to start off, what is results-oriented thinking? A quick search gives a base definition of “making decisions based on outcomes rather than logic.” This is a good enough definition for our purposes. In poker, the goal is to make the best decision at any given point in a hand. Sometimes you get all of your money in a heavy favorite, and still lose. Sometimes you get all of your money in a massive underdog, but manage to win. The only way to improve is to ignore the results, and focus on the decision points.
In baseball, I’ll argue, the same logic applies. This is the reason that statistics like hard-hit rate, swinging-strike rate and, perhaps even more so, launch angle have gotten so much attention in recent years. A hitter who routinely hits the ball hard and at a specific angle off the bat (something like 30 degrees, give-or-take 5) is more likely to get on base than a hitter who produces a lot of soft-contact or constantly beats the ball into the ground (look at you, Eric Hosmer).
We have all seen times when somebody gets a bloop hit to shallow right field, just out of reach of everyone. We’ve also all seen times when someone crushes a ball but it’s hit directly at a fielder. The first resulted in a hit, the second resulted in an out, and results-oriented thinking would argue that the first was in fact better.
It’s important to note the use of phrases like “more likely” and “less likely”, rather than “will” and “won’t”. The key to using statistics, even at their most basic, is to realize that just because one outcome is likely, even more likely, even probably going to happen, doesn’t mean it will. A hitter who hits a ball hard and at a good launch angle is more likely to get a hit, but will not always get a hit.
There’s also the instances of a hitter hitting a “pitcher’s pitch”. Let’s review one of the most famous at-bats (to Royals fans, anyways) in recent history. Here we see Salvador Perez hitting in the bottom of the 12th inning during the 2014 AL Wild Card game. There’s a runner on second, two outs, and the count is 2-2. Old friend Jason Hammel is pitching and as he begins his motion, we see the catcher move to set-up well outside the zone.
The pitch is essentially inside the opposite batter’s box. We all know the results. Somehow, Perez gets out in front of this and pulls it down the left-field line for a walk-off hit. The result, a game winning hit, is the ideal outcome in this situation. That being said, Salvy had no business swinging at this pitch. Oakland clearly knew that Salvador Perez was a free-swinger, and sought to exploit this by giving him pitches that he’d likely swing at but would have trouble making solid contact with.
Fast forward a few weeks, and Salvador Perez is batting against Madison Bumgarner with Gordon on third. You all know what happens, and I’ll spare you any visual reminders. Bumgarner throws several pitches high, well outside the zone. Any that are remotely close Salvy offers at. He manages to foul a few off, and in the end has a weak pop-up caught just foul down the third base line.
What do we learn from these two at bats? Nothing, really. Sometimes a good pitch will be hit, sometimes it won’t. Someone who focuses on the results will see these two at-bats and perhaps say Salvy should have swung at the pitch from Hammel, because it was a hit, but not at the pitch from Bumgarner. Clearly, as a Royals fan, I’m happy he got the hit against Hammel, and not happy he made an out against Bumgarner. But the poker player in me, the one who focuses on execution rather than results, sees two pitches that a better hitter would not have offered at. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t swung?
So now you understand a little bit better how I approach watching a baseball game. Each pitch I imagine a best-case scenario and worst-case scenario for both the pitcher and hitter. I judge the quality of an at bat not by the result, but by which pitches are swung at and the type of contact generated. If nothing else, maybe it will give some of you something else to think about in the upcoming season which the poker player in me has already declared will be a losing season (but man the Royals fan in me is hoping the results prove that wrong).