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Sunday, December 04, 2005
the theory of baseball
i play poker. texas hold 'em, mostly. it's my job. i make a good living.

i also watch a lot of baseball games.

what's the connection? as i watched games this year, i began to notice something about the correct way to play baseball. i began to notice that the way to play winning baseball is the same as the way to play winning poker.

what the hell am i talking about? i'll explain. in poker, when there's a bet to you, you basically have three choices: raise, call, or fold. most players don't raise or fold enough, and call too much. you want to fold most hands, usually 75-80%, because otherwise you're putting in money with a mediocre hand. but if you have a good hand, you want to raise. first of all, a good hand has more of a chance to win, so you want to increase the pot. but the other reason is it puts your opponent to a decision: put more money in, or fold. a fold and you win right there. obviously good. but putting more money in with an inferior hand could be even more costly. it's a very difficult decision. when your opponents have difficult decisions to make, they make mistakes. and when your opponents make mistakes, you profit.

so what does this have to do with baseball? baseball is exactly the same. a raise is swinging for power. a call is swinging for contact. a fold is taking a pitch.

most of the time, the hitter should fold. most hitters swing way too much. corey patterson, for example. a few get it right. adam dunn, bobby abreu. i'm not sure how many pitches they swing at but i bet it's 20-25%. so they're folding about the same amount as a good poker player. folding a lot is known as playing tight. tight is right. most players are too loose.

the first pitch, one should almost always fold. ted williams observed this in the science of hitting. first of all, they might miss. then you're well on your way to a walk. but what if it's a strike. then it's 0-1, and you still see at least two more pitches. no big deal. but the other value to a ball is you get a favorable count. then the pitches become a lot more predictable, and a lot more hittable.

in poker terminology, the first pitch is a bad hand. fold it.

maybe you're a little skeptical of this analogy. you can't win when you fold, but you can walk when you take a pitch. aah, but you can win when you fold! a good poker player knows that folding when you're beat is as good as raising when you're winning. the name of the game is to increase the bankroll.

let's move on. let's say you've got a 2-0 count. you expect a fastball right down the middle. what do you know, here it comes! this is when you want to raise. this is a good hand.

raising is known as being aggressive. a tight, aggressive style is best in poker, as it is in baseball. it's not a contradiction to be tight and aggressive. tight means you don't play many hands. aggressive means when you play a hand, you usually raise.

coaches talk all the time about the importance of being agressive when hitting. and they're right. but the problem is, being aggressive is often confused with swinging too much. in poker, this is known as being loose-aggressive, and it is the quickest way to lose your money. the key is to be tight-aggressive: take most pitches, but when you swing, swing hard.

swing hard? but you might miss. oh well, it's a strike. you'll get more pitches. but if you hit it, the fielders will have a difficult time getting you out. the major league average on a ball in play is .308. you want to increase that number as much as possible. if you swing weakly, you'll probably be out, and then you don't get any more pitches. you're out. sit down.

there is a place for the call. if you're down 0-2, you may have a better chance of getting to first if you just put it in play, rather than risk the strikeout. if the pitcher is really good, a raise might be futile. also, players with a lot of speed may want to slap-and-run.

analagous situations in poker are when you don't have a good hand, but the pot is so big you want to take a chance on winning it, or when you're up against a loose aggressive opponent; you can just call and take their money.

i'm gonna publish this now, but i plan to add a section on pitching. check back.
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