Tag Archives: Baseball Strategy

A Can’t-Miss Strategy for Making the MLB Playoffs

The baseball season is long — the regular season lasts more than half of the year. And that’s just the regular season. It doesn’t even include the preseason or postseason. As the season spans six months, one would think that it might be hard for some players to keep their focus during the middle of the summer.

In fact, this past Sunday while watching a Blue Jays game, I saw a graphic that depicted the wins/losses of the teams in the division during the last game of the series for the 2013 season. The graphic showed how the other teams were far more successful than the Blue Jays when it came to the last game in a series. As a result, it got me thinking about how to better incentivize players (maybe managers, too?)

My idea: incentivize winning series.

Before I get into the details, I want to preempt the argument that baseball players get paid too much. Grant Brisbee of SB Nation had an all-around great response:

The problem with these comparisons is that baseball isn’t the real world. There is no comparison for baseball. Try to invent one without devolving into ridiculousness. Okay, so there are 30 Walmarts in America. And there are laws that protect Walmart’s monopoly, which means there aren’t any Targets. But those 30 Walmarts can be run only by people with Ph.D.’s who graduate in the top one percent of their class from the top 10 universities. And the Walmarts are in competition only with each other, which means …

… a ridiculous scenario all around, of course. Baseball players shouldn’t be compared to the average American worker. They’re specialized, elite talents in an entertainment industry that’s sitting on a money spigot. And I feel like I should mention this at least once: If the players didn’t get the money, it would just go to the owners. You can argue that owners should get a larger share because they take the investment risk. I’m not sure I’d agree, but that’s at least a consistent argument. Saying that players should make less because it offends your sensibilities isn’t quite as compelling.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can focus on how to incentivize players to win series. Well, just before that, let me talk a little bit about why I chose series as a unit of measurement. As there are 162 games in a season, it seemed like incentivizing a player to win every game might superfluous, as players always want to win the game. I chose a series because there are a little more than 60 of them and it seemed like a good intermediate goal (or project milestone, if you want to put it in the language of project management) between winning every game and making it to the playoffs.

Most series are 3 games long, so we can think of winning the series as winning 2 out of the 3 games. If the team wins two out of the three games, then the players all get a bonus. To guard against them mailing it in during the last game, there could be another bonus if they sweep the series and win all 3 games. What happens when the team loses the first 2 games of the series — what do you incentivize then? Well, you’d incentivize not being swept. That is, if the team loses the first 2 games, the players get a bonus if they win the 3rd game and avoid being swept.

For those series that are 4 games long, the same incentivizes for winning/sweeping a series still apply, but we’d add another one — tying a series. That is, if a team is down 2 games to 1 in the series, the players would get a bonus if the won the last game to tie the series 2-2.

Now, my first thought would be to use money as the incentive to win these games, but with the salaries that players have, one may wonder whether there could be enough money offered to actually make the incentives work. The more I thought about it, though, the more I thought that even players with massive salaries could be motivated by money.

Let’s use last year’s MLB salary figures as a basis. Fangraphs had an article that detailed the average MLB salary last season ($3.4 million) and the median ($1.1 million). The median salary is probably a better representation, so let’s use it. The median salary equates to approximately $20,000/week, assuming that players get paid every week of the calendar year. Let’s also assume that there are 60 series in a season. That means, there will be approximately 60 times to offer players this bonus incentive. There are also 25 players that are on the active roster. As a result, we’d have to decide whether we wanted to reward all players or just the players that played in the game.

With 25 players on the active roster, the calculation for offering a bonus of $1000 makes it quite the expense, but not as much as you might think. 25 players getting a bonus of $1000 across 60 games equates to an extra 1.5 million that needs to be budgeted. Given that this is approximately the median salary of an MLB player, one would think that teams could afford this. It’s also important to note that these calculations didn’t include the possibility that teams would win the series and sweep the series. In those cases, players could get a bonus for winning the second game of a three game series and then get another bonus if they win the third game of the three game series. A quick look at the total number of sweeps last year tells us that the average number of sweeps was 7. So, we can add another $175,000, which brings the total expense to $1.675 million. While certainly not a small amount of money, in the context of how much teams spend, it seems like it might be worth it to try and win a few extra games.

Let’s look at the Baltimore Orioles last season as an example. They finished 85-77, 6.5 games out of making the playoffs. Meaning, if they were to win 7 of the games that they lost, they would have made the playoffs. Looking at their streak data from last season, they were swept 5 times. In addition, they were stopped from sweeping a team 8 times. Together, that’s 13 games. If the Orioles could have won half of those (6.5, so let’s round it to 7), they would have made the playoffs.

Put differently, if they would have employed this strategy and it was successful at least 50% of the time just in the series where they almost swept a team and were swept, they would have made the playoffs.

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Revisiting Using Pitchers on Short Rest: Long-Term Ramifications

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the Los Angeles Dodgers’ strategy of using their best pitcher (and one of the best pitchers in baseball) on short rest to pitch in a non-elimination game. The Dodgers ended up winning that game and the series, but the debate over the strategy doesn’t end there.

In my post from a couple of weeks ago, I compared the Dodgers’ decision to my younger years when I was playing baseball in double elimination tournaments. This wasn’t a perfect comparison, but I the spirit of the decision to use your best pitcher was there in both. A few nights ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers were eliminated from the postseason. All but one of the thirty teams are eliminated, so this isn’t earth-shattering news. However, the fashion in which they lost is.

In Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, the Dodgers started Clayton Kershaw. Yes, the same one who started in Game 4 for the Dodgers in the National League Divisional Series. This time, Kershaw’s start didn’t go so well. In fact, Kershaw only pitched 4 innings before pulled by the manager, Don Mattingly, but not before Kershaw gave up 7 runs. So, the question might be warranted: did using Kershaw on short rest affect his ability in Game 6? It turns out, this was a thought that had crossed some minds before Kershaw made the start in Game 4.

As they say, hindsight is 20-20, but it does seem a bit prescient. McCarthy’s hypothesis makes sense, but it’d be hard to test. One may point to Kershaw’s start in Game 2 of the NLCS. He tossed 6 innings and allowed 1 unearned run. Shouldn’t he have unravelled in that game if he were fatigued from the short rest start in the NLDS? One could argue that, but the way that McCarthy’s argument is setup leads one to believe that the “fatigue” could happen later and later. So, if the Dodgers won Game 6 and won Game 7, would McCarthy have expected Kershaw to unravel during one of his starts in the World Series?

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Let’s see if we can apply this lesson to decisions in other arenas. The analogy I used for the other post doesn’t really hold anymore. We’d be better off thinking about a decision for a business. Using Kershaw in the way the Dodgers did was almost like using a certain machine in the factory to fill some rush orders. The machine might only be able to fill a certain number of orders per week, but because it’s the holiday season, the boss thinks that running it on overdrive is necessary. Initially, the machine churns out the widgets just the way the boss would have expected, but next week when you use the machine, the widgets aren’t as high a quality. And then the week after that, the widgets aren’t even of a high enough quality to give away. It’s clear, the machine needs a break and some recalibration. In weighing the risk, the boss thought that using the machine more than usual was worth it for it potentially shutting down.

There are other ways we can map out this scenario, but I want you to think about how you might be overdoing it. Maybe the machine you use at work is fatiguing. Maybe you are fatiguing from working too hard.

Should the Los Angeles Dodgers Have Started Clayton Kershaw on 4 Days Rest?

A few days ago, there was a bit of a hullabaloo as the Los Angeles Dodgers decided they were going to start their star pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, in Game 4 on short rest. Let me back up for a second and explain a few things. Typically, starting pitchers in MLB get 5 days between starts. Meaning, if you pitched on Monday, you wouldn’t pitch again until Saturday. As we’re now into postseason baseball, some of the typical norms aren’t followed very closely. For example, last night in the elimination game between the Rays and the Red Sox, the Rays’ manager, Joe Maddon, changed the pitcher after the first inning even though the Red Sox hadn’t scored any runs! This is highly unorthodox. The Rays went on to lose last night, but as to whether that was a result of Maddon’s strategy is a post for another. Getting back to Kershaw and the Dodgers…

The Dodgers were up 2-1 in the series against the Atlanta Braves. Game 4 was to be played in Los Angeles. If the Dodgers won, they would move onto the next round of the playoffs. If the Braves won, there would be another game in Atlanta — Game 5 — to decide which of the two teams would advance. Kershaw pitched in Game 1 of the series, October 3rd, (and won). It was now October 7th, and the Dodgers’ manager, Don Mattingly, had decided that Kershaw was going to pitch in Game 4 that night.

There were many opinions about whether this was a good idea. There’s the “we’ve always done it this way” opinion that says you shouldn’t start Kershaw on short rest because that’s not how you do things. There’s also the mathematical opinion that starting Kershaw in Game 4 increased the Dodgers chances of winning Game 4.

In thinking about this decision that faced Mattingly, I was reminded of playing baseball when I was younger and being in double elimination tournaments. When it gets down near the end of the tournament, your pitchers are tired and some rules won’t let you pitch certain players more than a certain number of innings (depending on the league you’re playing in). So, coaches are often faced with the decision of starting their best pitcher in the semi-final game (or quarter-final) game to get onto the next round, where, quite possible, they won’t have anyone left to pitch. I’ve seen the strategy employed where one pitcher is held back in the “just in case” scenario. I understand why some coaches do this, but I don’t know that it’s the optimal strategy in most cases.

Elimination games are slightly different from games where you’re not facing elimination, but similar principles are used. Mattingly chose to use Kershaw in Game 4 instead of Game 5 because he thought it gave him the best chance to win. I totally respect that and if I were in his shoes, I think it’s the right call and the call that I would have made.

As it turns out, the Dodgers went on to win Game 4, so Mattingly’s use of Kershaw was vindicated. Even if the Dodgers lost, I still think that Mattingly would have made the right call in that situation. The mathematics supported Mattingly using Kershaw in Game 4 (to increase the Dodgers’ chances of winning Game 4).

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I wanted to use this sports example as a way to pivot towards strategy and decisions in your own life — personal or professional. I want you to think about decisions that are coming up in your life. Are you holding back your “Clayton Kershaw” for the “do-or-die” situation later or are you using him/her to close the deal or make the change right now? There’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to do it, but in reading this post, I hope that you’re able to map this scenario onto your own life to identify those instances where you might not be putting your best foot forward in the here and now because you’re saving it for tomorrow.