Trevor May, Sliders, and Slime Mold
Image courtesy of © Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY SportsAs I documented at Baseball Prospectus last May, May turned a corner partially because he changed the grip on his slider, turning it into a harder version of his curveball instead of the cutterish offering it had previously been. However, that doesn’t mean that the slider itself fueled his newfound dominance. In fact, even at season’s end, he hadn’t found a consistently above-average breaking ball.
Trevor May, Slider and Curveball Stats, 2019
A good breaking ball should induce swings and misses at about half again the rate at which May’s do so. He showed the ability to reshape both pitches, and to spin them at a high rate, but he got no real results with either pitch.
What changed, then? To answer that, let’s change the subject for a minute. In 2006, biological researchers at the University of Sydney performed an experiment on plasmodial slime mold. Slime mold is, most of the time, a single-cell organism, but under the right conditions, it can form a kind of glob large enough to be visible to the naked eye. It likes to latch onto and eat oats. As you might guess about something that goes by the name “plasmodial slime mold,” it doesn’t like light.
The researchers first put some slime mold into a petri dish with oats at opposite ends, one with an ultraviolet light shining on it and one in relative darkness. The slime mold “chose” (it doesn’t have a brain, but we can call this behavior choosing for these purposes) the oats at the dark end of the dish, over and over again, in repeated experiments. Then, the researchers added more oats to the end where the light was. At a certain point, the greater amount of available food balanced out the aversion to light, and the slime mold began choosing the oats in the light half the time.
One more twist, then we’ll get back to May. The researchers then added a third option for the slime mold: a smaller amount of oats in another dark end of the petri dish. The amounts in the original dark and light ends of the dish were held where they had been, the point at which the slime mold had shown roughly equal preference for the two options. The mold should have been expected to change almost nothing; the new option was clearly undesirable and irrelevant. That’s not what happened. Adding the extraneous, irrelevant option led the mold to choose the smaller quantity of oats in darkness (though still a larger quantity than the new option) three times as often as the larger quantity in the light.
Again, slime mold doesn’t have a brain. Yet, it’s stunningly capable of irrationality, just the way humans are. May, as it turns out, is capable of the same thing. Changing the slider grip gave him two theoretically workable breaking balls. Neither actually worked, but by adding an irrelevant option to the mixture, he disrupted the overall balance of his pitch mix.
Trevor May, Pitch Usage by Month, 2019
This is how May started mowing down opposing hitters like they were novice players of one of the video games he plays so well. He started pumping in his fastball about 70 percent of the time, getting pop-ups and empty swings by the bushel. May throws hard, generates good backspin, and achieves good carry on his heat because of his high arm slot. As he began throwing that pitch more often than ever, he found the success that eluded him as he tried to get his changeup, curve, and slider just right over the previous few years.
It will still help if May comes into this shortened season with a breaking ball that performs the way he’d hoped one would last year. By the end of the season, the slider and curve had melded into each other in a way that ate into the effectiveness of each. If he remains as reliant on his fastball as he was down the stretch, he’ll remain vulnerable to home runs at inopportune moments. Hitters also might begin to sit on his fastball and start laying off the ones above the strike zone.
For now, though, May has turned into a monster, and instead of doing so by finding a great secondary offering, he did it by turning toward what had been his best bet all along—all thanks to his inability to maintain static preferences after the addition of an irrelevant alternative.
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