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Game Theory Thinking – Mets/Dodgers Edition

Tonight’s Mets vs Dodgers game is going to be an interesting one.  The playoff series is tied 1-1, but game 2 was decided in a controversial manner.  Chase Utley was on first base with 1 out in the seventh inning and a man on first.  The batter hit a ball up the middle where the Mets looked like they might turn a double play (ending the inning and scoring threat).  Instead, Utley left the base path and slid into Ruben Tejada breaking up the double play and subsequently leading to a 4 run inning that decided the outcome of the game.  MLB is very clear on this rule:

7.09(f): A baserunner willfully and deliberately interferes with a ball or fielder with obvious intent to break up a double play; the batter-runner is also out.

Had MLB gotten the call right the inning would have ended right there, but they didn’t.  They actually called Utley safe because Tejada’s foot wasn’t on second base when he caught the ball (it shouldn’t have mattered though).  Unfortunately, it’s even worse than the loss as Tejada broke his leg on the play (although the slide didn’t look malicious to me, it was clearly illegal).  So, the Mets will naturally want revenge.

This is all very childish if you ask me.  There’s few things worse in sports than testosterone driven revenge that actually hurts your own team.  But this is the baseball “code”.  An eye for an eye or something like that.  It’s really just a stupid and immature tradition that hurts your own team more than it helps.

The interesting thing here is that Chase Utley was suspended for 2 games by MLB.  But he’s appealing it and the appeal won’t be heard until tomorrow which means that he can play tonight.  So, how do the teams approach this situation?

Clearly, if you’re the Dodgers you’d want to use this to your advantage.  When a lead-off batter gets on base he has a 38% chance of scoring.  That’s astronomically high in baseball terms.  So, the Dodgers want an early and high probability lead.  Howie Kendrick, who bats lead-off for the Dodgers has an on base percentage of just 33%. With Matt Harvey pitching the Dodgers have to consider batting Chase Utley first.  Why?  Because the Mets will very likely hit him intentionally to send a childish message.  This means the Dodgers can improve the likelihood of scoring a first inning run by batting Utley first with the hope that Harvey hits him. The double whammy would be if Harvey gets thrown out of the game for what would clearly be an intentional beaning of the batter.  Not likely, but possible.  In any case, it looks like an almost no-brainer strategic approach. Chase Utley should bat first in this game and you let the chess play out….For the Dodgers it’s a low risk/high reward strategy (as long as Utley knows he should wear body armor at the plate).

Of course, game theory isn’t that simple. The response might be something totally unexpected.  And if the Mets were placed in this precarious situation they’d be stupid to hit Utley.  In fact, Utley’s batting skills have deteriorated to the point where he’s a very high probability out if Harvey decides to pitch to him.  And that’s exactly what Harvey should do.  If placed in this situation the optimal outcome for the Mets would be to get that lead-off out.  It might not feel as good as getting revenge, but the best revenge here is beating the Dodgers and this is the strategy that would most increase the odds of achieving that.  Hitting the batter, on the other hand, has substantial downside risk with virtually no upside gain.

Update – The Dodgers did not use my approach and they lost the game because of it.  🙂