Adam Wainwright, Yasiel Puig, & Game Theory

Yasiel Puig is a freakish athlete, combining speed and strength in a way you’d have to go back to Bo Jackson to relocate. He’s baseball’s human highlight reel, with a level of effort to match.

Where many have suggested he goes wrong is in aiming for the highlight reel with every swing. Puig has been criticized by many for, among other things, ‘swinging too hard.’ It’s a charge his countryman Yoenis Cespedes also faces, and one leveled at sluggers from Vlad Guerrero all down the line. Some MLB videogames allow you to choose a normal swing or a power swing before every pitch. These are the players that effectively are choosing a power swing, every time.

…even on balls in the dirt

Let’s put that in the back of our minds and pivot to the Saint Louis Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright. (This article will be instructive.) Wainwright has one of the best curveballs in baseball. Some believe it is the best. It doesn’t have the highest whiff rate among all curveballs, but it is used far more often. The more exposure a pitch gets, the better the opposition will tend to do against it, as they become comfortable with its break and speed.  The fact that this curveball remains mightily effective suggests that it’s even better than you would think on first blush–that it would easily have the highest whiff rate if it were used less often. He has found the equilibrium in the tradeoff between trusting his best pitch and dulling its effectiveness.

You can put a similar thought towards Puig’s enthusiastic swing. Sure the man nearly falls over swinging so hard. But, barring experiment, we may have to assume that he has reached an equilibrium in the tradeoff between average and power–that he is at the apex of a bell-shaped graph.

It’s not as simple as saying that if he swung with less gusto he would strike out less. That would be true, but there would be a cost. By swinging more gently, fewer of his ground balls would go through the infield. More fly balls would land in the gloves of outfielders. (In saber terms, you might guess that his BABIP and fly ball distance would decrease.)

It’s a small, nuanced point, by no means guaranteed to be right. But it’s one instance of a subtlety that most sports announcers just bulldoze right over.

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