Why so many damned bunts?

Mike McGinnis

Teams are still bunting, and Buzzfeed's Erik Malinowski brings us a good old-fashioned (and well-reported and -quoted) screed on the old-time subject. A snippet:

Using numbers collected over a 17-season span in the ’60s and ’70s — i.e., a LOT of data, not a small sample taken to speculative conclusions — Palmer and Thorn calculated how many runs the average offense scores in an inning given every possible game situation (no one on/no outs, runner on first/no outs, runners on first and second/no outs…). Most sacrifice bunts occur when there’s a runner on first with no outs. In those situations the average offense will go on to score 0.783 runs. Let’s say a sacrifice bunt in that situation is successful, as Dusty Baker hopes. Now you have a runner on second and one out. The average offense with a runner on second and one out scores 0.699 runs. The run expectancy has decreased thanks to the sacrifice bunt. Sacrificing an out to get a runner to second makes a team less likely to score, not more. (The specific numbers have changed as offenses have gotten more potent, but the gist remains the same.)

As Palmer and Thorn conclude in the book that accompanied their original data, "With the introduction of the lively ball, the sacrifice bunt should have vanished."

--snip--

You’d think a scenario that’s so contrived and complex and arcane would have to be worth the trouble and effort that goes into it, or else managers would stop calling for it. But that’s simply not the case.

What follows are quotes from a bunch of my esteemed colleagues -- Nick Piecoro, Jay Jaffe, Dave Brown, Sam Miller, King Kaufman, and Keith Law -- explaining why managers still insist on bunting with some regularity. And all of the explanations are spot-on. And Malinowski's done his home work, reading (for example) all 50 pages about sacrifice bunting in The Book -- Playing the Percentages in Baseball. And yes, Dusty Baker probably bunts too often: 81 so far this season. But 47 of those were executed by pitchers, which leaves only 34 for everyone else. Thirty-four non-pitcher sacrifices in 151 games just isn't a lot. And Baker's Reds actually lead the National League in sacrifice hits by quite a bit.

The usual run-expectancy charts, by the way, are useful but not definitive. Yes, you're going to score fewer runs with a runner on second base and one out than with a runner on first and nobody out. Ergo, it's silly to give up an out for a base. But the bunt starts looking better when you factor in the chances that the batter will wind up on first base, by dint of hit or error. Of course, you have to also consider the possibility of the runner getting forced at second, in the event of a poor bunt. That happens, too. You might also consider what happens to the defense when one or two infielders are drawn in, guarding against the bunt.

From the last of those 50 pages about the bunt in The Book:

If you were expecting a nice, tidy set of rules, such as "It is rarely correct to sacrifice in this day and age," or, "A bunt is only warranted in the late innings of a close game," you are probably disappointed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your point of view, analyzing the efficacy of the sacrifice bunt in the various situations is so complex and difficult and the results are often so close, that we can offer only a few clear-cut rules of thumb and a myriad of recommendations built on somewhat shaky foundations.

Looking at the American League SH rankings, I notice a pattern among the bottom five: Cleveland, Boston, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Chicago ... four Moneyball teams and one wild card. But you know, even those five have averaged 21 sacrifice hits this season. It can't always be that dumb, can it?

Bunt-wise, Dusty Baker's a dinosaur. Someday he'll go away, and baseball won't be quite as interesting. But the sacrifice bunt won't ever go away completely. For which I'm thankful. Baseball's more interesting with it.

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