MLB Betting Insight: Should R.A. Dickey Throw Even More Knuckleballs?

Posted by Mila Anderson on Thursday,August 20, 2015 5:26, EDT in

One of the more intriguing elements of the game of baseball and MLB betting is the chess game that takes place between hitters and pitchers, even in the middle of an at-bat. Both pitcher and hitter know what they can do well, and thanks to detailed scouting reports, they also know what their adversaries do well.

If a pitcher’s best pitch is the heater (yes, Nolan Ryan) he might want to use it a lot. However, major league hitters will be able to prepare for that pitch and, even when it is in the high 90s, they will be able to drive it if they believe it’s coming and guess correctly. This is why even the best fastballer needs to have a curve he can drop in for a strike or a change-up that he can use to freeze the batter in his tracks.

Over time, one would expect the pitcher to be able to develop a mixture of fastballs and off-speed pitches that an opposing hitter would not be able to fathom. In terms of game theory, this is what is known as the Nash equilibrium, where the pitcher has the ideal strategy.

MLB Betting Insight: Should R.A. Dickey Throw Even More Knuckleballs?



Of course, game theory often runs out of effectiveness when it hits reality. How can you tell which pitchers have gotten as close as possible to their point of equilibrium? One way is to identify pitchers who are just about always as effective no matter what kind of pitch they throw.

In the case of R.A. Dickey, he throws his best pitch – his knuckleball – about 87 percent of the time. This is just about as often as any pitcher in Major League Baseball rolls with his top pitch. However, he has not yet approached his equilibrium, which suggests that he should be throwing it even more often. His only other pitch that he uses with any regularity is his fastball, which is much less effective, even when it’s just his pitch that he uses to change things up (or try to remedy control issues). Game theory suggests that Dickey should be throwing his knuckleball even more often.

Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn once said that “Hitting is timing – pitching is upsetting timing.” That was a profound observation in the first half of the twentieth century, when the idea of sabermetrics was far away from baseball – as alien an idea as the designated hitter, for example.

Jose Fernandez is another pitcher who could benefit more from using a particular pitch more often. His fastball has not performed above the league average since the 2014 season in terms of keeping other teams from scoring runs. However, his slider has performed brilliantly at least in terms of a per-pitch average. As he has progressed in the major leagues since his 2013 debut, he has gradually thrown a higher percentage of sliders – and a lower percentage of fastballs. This is likely one reason why he has increased his domination over National League batters. In the case of Dickey’s knuckleball and Fernandez’s slider, more may be better indeed.

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