Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Jose Bautista's Gambit: The Game Theory behind the failed takeout slide

Over two weeks after Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista became one of the first victims of MLB's new takeout slide rule, I can't get over the fact that Joey Bats actually made what was a smart decision.

The slide itself seemed borderline. This wasn't the traditional spikes-up M.Bison from Street Fighter Slide Kick Into the 2nd Baseman takeout slide that Chase Utley used to injure Ruben Tejada in the 2015 playoffs. Bautista's slide was in line with the bag. His hand made contact with Logan Forsythe's leg as Forsythe tried to turn the potential game ending double play. The booth umpire decided that Bautista had reached for Forsythe's leg on the slide, and called the batter out due to runner interference. Game over, Rays win.

Bautista's no dummy. He knows as well as anyone that interference with the middle infielder on slides into 2nd is now illegal. And I don't believe for a second that his outstretched left hand was circumstantial. Every player knows to keep his upper body compact to maximize speed when sliding into a base. The only reason Bautista happened to extend the hand on the same side as the 2nd baseman was to interfere with his throw.

While that seems rather dumb, to knowingly interfere when it's not legal... Bautista's play was a great game theory move, and the best play for his situation.


See, if Bautista slides normally, Forsythe, a competent 2B, turns the easy double play to throw out the not so fleet footed Jays batter Edwin Encarnacion at 1B to end the game. Of course, if Bautista blatantly slides into Forsythe, it's not only obvious interference and the game is over... but he could also be suspended.

However, when Bautista slides normally into the bag and subtlely extends his hand, there is a chance that the umpires overlook his interference, with the more substantial chance that Forsythe doesn't complete his play (which is what happened: Forsythe in fact made a throwing error due to interference from the outstretched hand), tying the game (Josh Donaldson would score from 3B) and keeping the game alive with two outs in the top 9th. Having a runner on 1st with two outs, obviously, gives you a better chance of winning than the game being over.

Yes, Bautista is often cited for interference and the game is over anyway. But it took an astute challenge from Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash and a conclusive booth review for that ruling to occur. Bautista's interference was subtle, and there appeared such a substantial chance that he could get away with it that many argued (incorrectly) that Bautista hadn't intended to interfere at all! The umpires on the field in fact had not ruled he done so.

Of course, the opposing manager and the booth were a little sharper than that, and Bautista's gambit did not pay off. It also sent a message that this subtle hand-checking-like attempt at interference will get called, so it's unlikely players will attempt it in the future.

But before we knew all that, Bautista made the game theory optimal decision that it was worth a try. It wasn't clean, and he got caught, but it was a very smart move on his part... smarter than playing it clean and taking the certain defeat. There was greater expected value for him and the Jays in attempting to get away with interference, than there was in sliding normally... even with the high odds that his gambit would not succeed.

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