Ricky Renteria & The High Variance Strategy


I noticed this situation when it was happening and made a little note and THEN, I heard the big homeys Tom Fornelli and James Fegan talk about this same thing on their podcast (White Sox Business) so I thought I’d devote a short blog post to it.

It’s the 1st inning of Tuesday, August 13th Game 1 match up between the White Sox and the Astros.  The White Sox have Dylan Cease on the hill and it is 1-0 Astros (GFY George Springer) with runners on 2nd and 3rd and one out.  Yordan Alvarez steps to the plate.

Yordan Alvarez is atypical for a rookie, because he’s hitting (.355 / .431 / .733) entering the game, but he’s hardly atypical for an Astros hitter (he’s batting 5th).  Ricky Renteria signals to have Alvarez walked to load the bases.




If you consider yourself a “smart” baseball fan, you’ll say, Intentional Walks are bad, ALL THE TIME.  Adding any base runners for free are negative EV (expected value) for the team doing the intentional walks and adds additional run expectancy to the team receiving the intentional walk.  I’d agree with that in isolation.  IN ISOLATION.

Let’s look at the betting line for this game.  Astros -320 / White Sox +260.  Don’t know what that means??  It’s okay, your Uncle BeefLoaf is here to simplify it.  Using a no-vig calculator (which removes the juice from a betting situation) to get the mid-market price the White Sox are approximately 27% to win this game at the start.  I’m no genius, but I’d suspect that it being 1-0 in the first inning with runners on 2nd and 3rd likely further plunges that already low (for a baseball game) probability of winning.

Ricky’s choice to walk Alvarez is negative EV in isolation, meaning, blindly using this strategy ranges from bad to terrible across all sort of conditions, BUT in this particular situation, in which his team is already a large underdog to win the game, taking this tactic is a reasonable gamble.  According to Tom Tango‘s tome The Book, page 33, table 9, the run expectancy increases by intentionally walking Alvarez in this spot, HOWEVER, the likelihood of the Astros scoring exactly 0 runs from this point on also increases, which is the result Ricky Renteria is undoubtedly shooting for in a game in which they are already down a run and huge underdogs to boot.  These types of strategies are generally used in later innings when win probabilities tend to swing more wildly, but Ricky understood that in this spot, he needed a high variance positive result.

THE RESULT?!?!?!?!?

GFY, the result doesn’t matter, neither does the final score of the game, you can look all that up on your own.  It’s the thought that counts.

I know what you are saying, BeefLoaf is a Ricky STAN, he’ll defend Ricky decisions NO. MATTER. WHAT (not true of course).  That’s fine, but here are a couple more examples of being a big underdog and using a high variance strategy because it is the best available to you.

Pete Carill and the Princeton Offense


Famous college (and pro) hoops coach Pete Carill used a high leverage strategy to improve his chances of winning basketball games during his 30 years coaching at Princeton.  With MUCH, MUCH higher academic requirements than the majority of his Division I competitors Carill wasn’t getting blue chippers.  So he devised an offense that used LOTS of PASSES.  And sloooooowed the game down.  This was the era of the 45 second shot clock and when ole Pete was playing against a Georgetown or a UCLA in the NCAA Tourney, he wanted to play a game in the 40’s.  Remember, a high variance strategy tends to involve reducing the overall amount of results (in basketball, that can be running down the clock and reducing your more talented opponents possessions).

The 2000 WSOP ME Heads Up – Chris “Jesus” Ferguson vs TJ Cloutier


Poker is another domain where you see high variance strategies used.  As legend has it, the upstart Ferguson made it to the heads up portion of the Main Event final table vs the tournament legend Cloutier (btw, Chorizy and I have a fairly funny TJ Cloutier story, if you are a poker dork, catch us in the seats and ask us about it) with a 10 to 1 chip lead, but that’s when all hell broke loose and the more experienced Cloutier came roaring back to catch up and make it a near even chip battle.  At this point, with Ferguson realizing he might be in trouble, he adjusted to a very high variance strategy, which included playing very large pots pre-flop, including the hand that clinched him the tournament when he rammed his A,9 into TJ’s A,Q and managed to spike a 9 on the river for the win.  A player that thought he had a large edge against his opponent would want to play small pots versus his opponent and force lots of decisions.  Ferguson assumed he was an underdog using that strategy vs Cloutier, so he used a high variance strategy which eventually clinched him the title and $1.5M in cash.

High variance strategies can be successfully deployed when you are an underdog in a situation, think of some on your own and hit me up with them either in the comments or on twitter.


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