How Game Theory Is Applied to Pitch Optimization

The timeless struggle between pitcher and batter is one of dominance — who holds it and how. Both players use a repertoire of techniques to adapt to each other’s strategies in order to gain advantage, thereby winning the at-bat and, ultimately, the game.

These strategies can rely on everything from experience to data. In fact, baseball players rely heavily on data analytics in order to tell them how they’re swinging their bats, how well they’ll do in college, how they’ll perform at Wrigley versus Miller.

Big data has been used in baseball for decades — as early as the 60s. Bill James, however, was the first prominent sabermetrician, writing about the field in his Bill James Baseball Abstracts during the 80s. Sabermetrics are used to measure in-game performance and are often used by teams to prospect players.

Baseball fans familiar with sabermetrics, the A’s, and Brad Pitt have likely seen Moneyball, the Hollywood adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book. The book told the story of As manager Billy Beane’s use of sabermetrics to amass a winning team.

Sabermetrics is one way baseball teams use big data to leverage game theory in baseball — on a team-wide scale. However, by leveraging their data through the concepts of game theory on a smaller scale, baseball teams can help their men on mound out-duel those at the plate.

Game theory studies strategic decision making, not just in sports or games, but in any situation in which a decision must be made against another decision maker. In other words, it is the study of conflict.

Game theory uses mathematical models to analyze decisions. Most sports are zero-sum games, in which the decisions of one player (or team) will have a direct effect on the opposing player (or team). This creates an equilibrium which is known as the Nash equilibrium, named for the mathematician John Forbes Nash. What this means is that if a team scores a run, it is usually at the expense of the opposing team — likely based on an error by a fielder or a hit off a pitcher.

In the case of pitching, game theory — especially the use of the Nash equilibrium — can be used to predict pitch optimization for strategic purposes. Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight advocates using big data and sabermetrics to analyze each pitch in a hurler’s armory, then cultivating the pitcher’s equilibrium — the perfect blend of pitches that will result in the highest number of strikeouts, etc.

Paine has gone so far as to create his own formula, the Nash Score, to predict which pitcher should throw which pitches in order to outwit batters.

In perfect game theory, the Nash equilibrium states that each game player uses a mix of strategies that is so effective, neither has incentive to change strategies. For pitchers, Paine’s Nash Score uses their data to find the optimal combination of pitches to combat batters, including frequency.

Paine does point out that creating this kind of equilibrium in baseball can be detrimental to a pitcher. He is, after all, playing against another human being who is just as capable of using game theory to adapt strategies to upset the equilibrium.

If a pitcher’s fastball is his best, and his Nash Score shows that he should be using it more often, savvy hitters are going to notice. “ . . . In time, the fastball will lose its effectiveness if it’s not balanced against, say, a change-up — even if the fastball is a far better pitch on paper,” writes Paine.

In this case, a mixed strategy is the best — in game theory, mixed strategies are best used when a player intends to keep his opponent guessing. Though pitch optimization using Paine’s Nash Score could lead to efficiency, allowing pitchers to throw fewer pitches for more innings, it could also lead to batters adapting much quicker to patterns, thus negating all the work.

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Hattie is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho. She has a varied background, including education and records analysis as well as sports journalism. She currently spends many sleepless nights seeking her MBA but always sets aside time to enjoy a good cider.

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