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the sacrifice bunt should have vanished
September 17, 2013 12:40 PM   Subscribe

Why Do Baseball Players Still Bunt So Damn Much?
It’s the most maddening and demonstrably ineffective strategy in baseball and has been for quite some time. So why do teams keep doing it?
posted by andoatnp (61 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Outs are precious. You'd think people would cotton on, but no.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:42 PM on September 17, 2013


"Because they play in the National League". What do I win?
posted by Curious Artificer at 12:43 PM on September 17, 2013 [16 favorites]


For a forward-thinking palate cleanser, check out this article about how the Pirates have thrown traditional ideas about defensive positioning out the window. They've quadrupled their number of radical shifts and re-trained their entire pitching staff to throw two-seam (sinking) fastballs instead of four-seamers. They've gone from worst in the majors for defensive efficiency to first, with mostly the same players. They've added 12.8 WAR of defensive value... the difference between them being in first place right now and being a distant third.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:49 PM on September 17, 2013 [7 favorites]


the author of this piece has clearly never read a mefi thread on the utilization of statistics in baseball.
posted by JPD at 12:49 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


...the most maddening and demonstrably ineffective strategy in baseball...

Except when it isn't. A perfectly executed bunt is a beautiful thing. I can't recall the game, but I saw one executed just the other night, and it was textbook. Except, the bunter was fast as hell, and not only brought a run in, but beat the throw to first. Beautiful.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:55 PM on September 17, 2013


Robinson Cano just bunted for a double the other night exploiting the defensive shift that was on.
posted by Jacob G at 1:00 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pretty sure the issue at hand here is an intentional sacrifice bunt. Bunting for a base hit isn't really problematic.
posted by JPD at 1:01 PM on September 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Thorzdad: Yes, that works beautifully on some minuscule number of bunts. We also see beautiful catches at the wall robbing a batter of home runs, but it's not an effective long-term strategy to place your outfielders all on the warning track.
posted by OHSnap at 1:02 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, sometimes the sacrifice bunt totally works. Sometimes, you can save your life by not wearing a seatbelt. In both cases, with no way in advance to know if the huge risk you are taking is going to work out, you're better off playing the numbers and going the safer way.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:06 PM on September 17, 2013


Bunting for a base hit isn't really problematic.

Well, except that the article's various cultural explanations for the sac bunt's continued popularity surely have something to do with the insane overpraise that gets heaped on guys like Juan Pierre (cue traditionalist response "there are no guys like Juan Pierre he grithustlebunts better than anybody and gets to the park early every single day just to roll the ball down the lines") for attempting to bunt for a hit so often.
posted by RogerB at 1:07 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Except, the bunter was fast as hell, and not only brought a run in, but beat the throw to first.

The author specifically excepted the situation where the batter is fast enough to bunt for a single. And buying a lottery ticket is stupid, except for when you win, and then it's a beautiful thing, so there's that.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:08 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I feel compelled to point out that Ross Barnes (my favorite player of the 1870s) didn't just bunt. He regularly led the league in doubles, triples, and slugging. Hell, in 1873, he led the league in basically everything. He was a great hitter in every respect, not just his exceptional skill at crazy bunting.
posted by Copronymus at 1:09 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


but but statistics can't possibly capture grithustlebunts RogerB. Its tradishun.
posted by JPD at 1:10 PM on September 17, 2013


The bunt may or may not be effective, but I don't think this is the article to prove it one way or the other - as one of the comments notes:

You mention that by giving up an out in a sac bunt situation, the chances of scoring a run drops from .783 to .699. However, the sac bunt (nearly) guarantees a runner moving up a base, from 1st to 2nd—if you get an out at the plate with a runner on first and he doesn’t move up, then the chance to score drops from .783 to .478—a MUCH larger decrease, and still much much lower than your chances with a runner on 2nd and 1 out. The sac bunt still makes strategic sense.

Hinging on just how often that runner does get to second successfully, I'd say a sac bunt may still be appropriate.
posted by jalexei at 1:11 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because it works better than the hit-and-run play?
posted by 1970s Antihero at 1:11 PM on September 17, 2013


You mention that by giving up an out in a sac bunt situation, the chances of scoring a run drops from .783 to .699. However, the sac bunt (nearly) guarantees a runner moving up a base, from 1st to 2nd—if you get an out at the plate with a runner on first and he doesn’t move up, then the chance to score drops from .783 to .478—a MUCH larger decrease, and still much much lower than your chances with a runner on 2nd and 1 out. The sac bunt still makes strategic sense.

Doesn't take into account opportunity cost of that out tho. There are a many outcomes that are as good as or better than a sac bunt in terms of trading one base for one out if he swings away.
posted by JPD at 1:14 PM on September 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


The key thing here is that he's talking about an "average" offensive team, which is basically talking from a position of privilege compared to us Padre fans.
posted by LionIndex at 1:15 PM on September 17, 2013 [14 favorites]


Has anyone seen a discussion of the wisdom of holding a man on first when there's a good left-handed batter in the box? I haven't seen any stats on this, but it sure seems like a way disproportionate number of right-field singles get hit in this situation with runners ending up on first and third with no outs (expected runs: 1.639) instead of just on third with one out (expected runs: 0.897), assuming in the latter situation the batter grounds out.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:15 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


What does this word mean? Bunting? never heard of it. Signed a Red Sox fan.
posted by Gungho at 1:15 PM on September 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Jody is a dangerous bunter.
posted by nathancaswell at 1:16 PM on September 17, 2013


There are a many outcomes that are as good as or better than a sac bunt in terms of trading one base for one out if he swings away.


Well no, all outcomes that trade one out for one base are identical, barring an injury or bird infestation or something like that. Assuming it's the 'same' out and the same base.
posted by Mister_A at 1:18 PM on September 17, 2013


Well played LionIndex, well played. You managed to work privilege into even this thread.
posted by COD at 1:18 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


as one of the comments notes

Not taking into account the difference between "chance to score" at all and chance to score more than one run wins that commenter no prizes as an analyst here. The stattiest of statheads will still agree that it's sometimes appropriate to bunt in the traditional sac bunt situations — in the few game situations when one run does you just as much good as more than one.
posted by RogerB at 1:18 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


What's the statistical impact of festooning your batter with festive crepe paper decorations?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 1:20 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


However, the sac bunt (nearly) guarantees a runner moving up a base, from 1st to 2nd—if you get an out at the plate with a runner on first and he doesn’t move up, then the chance to score drops from .783 to .478—a MUCH larger decrease, and still much much lower than your chances with a runner on 2nd and 1 out.

The expected number of runs is averaged over all potential outcomes flowing from the situation weighted by their probability of occurrence, so that batter-out scenario figures into the 0.783. Pointing that scenario out as a possibility doesn't change the fact that the expected number of runs is higher. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your point?
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:21 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Bottom of the 9th, tie game, runner on first, no outs, double play machine catcher at the plate. Given that the pitcher is almost certainly going to try to induce a double play ground ball, and that tagging up to 2nd requires a deep fly ball and decent speed at first, bunting the runner to 2nd can very much be the optimal move at that time.
posted by COD at 1:23 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, sometimes the sacrifice bunt totally works.

The key is knowing when to use it, and that's based not only of the speed of the running on first, but the batting ability of the current batter, the batting ability of the *next* batter after the theoretical batter, and the defense.

This is why pitchers bunt -- they're lousy hitters (so swinging away isn't very useful) and they're followed by the 1 hitter, who's usually a guy good at getting on base. If the defense has an old catcher and a first baseman noted for his hitting prowess and not his range, then bunting is more likely to work. If the defense is infamous for turning double plays, a bunt may mean the difference between having no baserunners and a guy on third with two outs.*

This is why the "against an average team" metrics are silly to use as proof that you should discard the play -- nobody plays the average team. Yes, the average says no -- but other factors may well push the tactic to success.

* Without the bunt. First guy gets on, second grounds into DP. Two outs, bases empty. With the bunt. First guy gets on, second guy bunts him over to 2nd, third guy grounds out but allows the runner to advance -- two outs, man on third.
posted by eriko at 1:25 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, and I would like to point out that the 0.783 includes the losing strategy of sac bunt. Without it, the 0.783 would be higher.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:26 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Check out this article about how the Pirates have thrown traditional ideas about defensive positioning out the window.

That article is a gold standard for middle-school level reading assignments. I mean that in all seriousness - interesting topic, presented in a very simple and forthright writing style, with enough new vocabulary so the kid has to keep a dictionary at hand. It's rare you find a sportswriter who can cover a complex topic so clearly and comprehensively without a lick of literary flourish. I found it refreshing.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:38 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


"I've got nothing against the bunt ... in its place. But most of the time, that place is at the bottom of a long forgotten closet." - Earl Weaver.

Or, more colorfully (NSFW).
posted by sixpack at 1:39 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


I prefer the three run homer.
posted by sfts2 at 1:56 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are a many outcomes that are as good as or better than a sac bunt in terms of trading one base for one out if he swings away.

Well no, all outcomes that trade one out for one base are identical, barring an injury or bird infestation or something like that. Assuming it's the 'same' out and the same base.


imprecise language on my part. If you swing away the outcomes are better, the same, or worse. On average they are better than the sac bunt.

to Eriko's point - with a very weak hitter the likelihood of better is potentially low enough to skew the probabilities such that a sac bunt is the more efficient option, but for any hitter of average or better skill, that's not the case.
posted by JPD at 2:12 PM on September 17, 2013


Sacrifice bunting and other one run strategies like base stealing are anachronisms from the time before steroids and growth hormones and big beefy guys belting the hide off of the baseball and scoring runs in bunches. In 2013 the team that wins is the one that gets a lot of three-run homers.

I also don't understand all the defensive shifting going on now. I think it's a fad.
posted by bukvich at 2:19 PM on September 17, 2013


To measure the efficacy of the sac bunt you can't just compare 'runner on 1st with no outs' to 'runner on 2nd with one out'. That's not really comparing anything useful. You have to compare sac bunts against runner on 1st situations where bunts aren't attempted, and compare those outcomes.
Also, the stats given are 'average runs scored per inning', and not 'chance of scoring at least one run', which is more appropriate, If not bunting results in a smaller number of scoring situations but with more multiple-run outcomes, then it's not a good solution for 9th or extra-inning situations.
There are lots of variables to consider, from baserunner's speed to batter's ground ball average, to catcher's ability to throw out a steal attempt, that need to be considered when making the sac bunt call. To dismiss it using blanket non-situational statistics and applying those statistics improperly isn't making the writer's case the way he thinks it is.
posted by rocket88 at 2:32 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


RogerB: "(cue traditionalist response "there are no guys like Juan Pierre he grithustlebunts better than anybody and gets to the park early every single day just to roll the ball down the lines")"


No matter what your feelings on the issues raised in the article, I hope we can all appreciate the use of the word "grithustlebunts" for being so close to sports talk insanity that I almost thought it was real.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 2:48 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Dusty Baker example from the article isn't even the most maddening from that series. The next game (I think), again in extra innigs, the Reds' leadoff hitter singled, and Baker pinch ran Billy Hamilton. Ok cool, Hamilton is just up from the minors and is widely thought to have the fastest legs in baseball. Perfect guy to bring on to steal a base in a critical situation. THEN BAKER PUT A BUNT ON!! The whole point of bringing in a guy to steal a base is it negates the need to throw away an out by bunting!!!! Luckily the batter couldn't get the bunt down, so they ended up taking the bunt off. Hamilton stole the base, and the batter hit a single to score him and win the game. Despite the manager, not because of him.

Baker, like many other managers, can't help himself. Most times, the best thing they can do is get out of the way. I'm looking at you Ron Washington and Don Mattingly.

There are absolutely situations where bunting is appropriate...particularly if a fast batter can bunt safely to get on base. But it's used to a ridiculous degree and it's utterly idiotic.
posted by dry white toast at 2:53 PM on September 17, 2013


Also, the stats given are 'average runs scored per inning', and not 'chance of scoring at least one run'

Excellent point. From what I've read, while the run expectancy overall will decrease with a sac bunt (because giving away the out makes it less likely you'll score multiple runs), the likelihood of scoring exactly one run actually increases slightly.....and "slightly" becomes a bigger number with a worse hitter or a better pitcher.

In other words, tie score in the bottom of the ninth, no outs, runner on first, terrible hitter at the plate, opposing team's best reliever on the mound? Yes, it absolutely makes sense to lay down the sacrifice there, and I don't think any stathead will argue with that. But asking your leadoff guy to lay down a bunt in the sixth to move a runner over when you're up by a run? Silly.
posted by key lime guy at 2:56 PM on September 17, 2013


Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your point?

Nope, I'm probably just misunderstanding math.
posted by jalexei at 2:58 PM on September 17, 2013


Are we through with bunting stats? Can we get on to why baseball players spit so much?
posted by Cranberry at 3:14 PM on September 17, 2013


Squeeze play for life!
posted by stltony at 3:22 PM on September 17, 2013


I always thought it was because if you could make the defense think you might bunt, it affects how they set up. And to make your threat credible, you've got to go through with it sometimes.

Not for the actual effectiveness of the bunt itself.
posted by ctmf at 3:22 PM on September 17, 2013


This makes perfect sense if you're an average MLB player on an average MLB team playing against an average MLB team with an average MLB pitcher on an average day with an average temperature with an average wind blowing from an average field. Is this written by an economist?
posted by srboisvert at 3:59 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm currently coaching a 12 year old baseball team. At our first practice I asked how many know how to bunt. The only one to raise their hand was my son. Maybe the problem isn't so much the bunt but having so few players that even have the skill to execute one correctly.
posted by any major dude at 4:39 PM on September 17, 2013


I blame Ron Roenicke.
posted by drezdn at 4:45 PM on September 17, 2013


srboisvert: "This makes perfect sense if you're an average MLB player on an average MLB team playing against an average MLB team with an average MLB pitcher on an average day with an average temperature with an average wind blowing from an average field. Is this written by an economist?"

Unsurprisingly, there's a fair bit of overlap between economists and sabermetricians, but baseball makes infinitely more sense to analyze with the tools of the economist. The inputs and outputs are so limited that it actually makes sense to reduce complicated interactions to simple formulae. It is in no way unreasonable to expect the managers to have some idea of the run expectancies for various late-game situations and to have some reason for justifying the expenditure of outs on sacrifice bunts that's better than, "It's what Leo Durocher would have done."

Even if you disdain the analysis completely, Dusty Baker does love to bunt way, way more than is reasonable. A few years ago he made Edwin Encarnacion put down the first sacrifice bunt of his professional career (several hundred games into said career), and then, after Edwin put down two embarrassments to the art of bunting, watched as he hit a massive home run. Afterwards, of course, Dusty tried to take credit for causing the situation because he knew that Edwin was a clutch hitter and just needed to be put in a two-strike hole late in the game to start hitting homers, and I guess having him try something he'd never done before was the best way to get that to happen.
posted by Copronymus at 4:56 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Dusty Baker is about to lead the Reds into the playoffs for the 3rd time in 6 years since taking over managerial duties for a team that had failed to make the post-season for 14 years prior to that. I'd say his little pinky knows more about baseball than Bill James.
posted by any major dude at 5:34 PM on September 17, 2013


American league's Tigers' Iglesias just bunted safely due to 3 Mariners not communicating on who'd get the ball.

THAT'S why players still bunt.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 5:34 PM on September 17, 2013


Why do baseball players bunt?

In the immortal words of George Carlin, in his "Football vs. Baseball" routine...

"Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice."


'Nuff said.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:55 PM on September 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


any major dude: "Dusty Baker is about to lead the Reds into the playoffs for the 3rd time in 6 years since taking over managerial duties for a team that had failed to make the post-season for 14 years prior to that. I'd say his little pinky knows more about baseball than Bill James."

Dusty has a long track record of success and a number of important skills for managers (admittedly, this is easier for me to say since I'm not a Cubs fan). He also has some weaknesses, one of which is bunting too much. He used to be notorious for shredding young pitchers' arms but his tenure with the Reds has been much improved on that front. Maybe if he can lay off the bunting a little, he could be even better.
posted by Copronymus at 7:40 PM on September 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ok cool, Hamilton is just up from the minors and is widely thought to have the fastest legs in baseball. Perfect guy to bring on to steal a base in a critical situation. THEN BAKER PUT A BUNT ON!! The whole point of bringing in a guy to steal a base is it negates the need to throw away an out by bunting!!!!

I don't think you've fully grasped Hamilton's speed yet. Baker was trying to bunt him from first to third.
posted by escabeche at 8:42 PM on September 17, 2013


I'd say his little pinky knows more about baseball than Bill James.

Plus, Dusty co-invented the high five.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:42 PM on September 17, 2013


"Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness.
Baseball has the sacrifice."


Meanwhile Rugby has the 'one, two stinkaroo' and alleged cock biting.
posted by biffa at 4:22 AM on September 18, 2013


Came to make the exactly one run point that key lime guy articulated so well.

Also for the appeals to authority about baseball lifers knowing more than people who do the math. Was not let down.
posted by that's candlepin at 7:42 AM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just a point to consider: a lot of your bad hitters also suck at bunting. Even if you ignore blatantly bad outcomes like popping up to the catcher or pitcher, there are also a lot of ones you see all the time where they try to bunt for two easy strikes, then have to stand up and hack at it down 0-2. Do those outs get counted in the bunting stats? Because if they don't, it starts looking even worse.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:12 PM on September 18, 2013


Dr. Enormous,

Do they take into account the base hit that goes by the drawn in 3rd basemen/1st basement after the failed bunt attempt?
posted by any major dude at 8:49 PM on September 18, 2013


Researching this, Ted Williams, the guy who literally wrote the book on the science of hitting, was of the opinion that the only way to beat the defensive shift was to lay down a good bunt... something he felt he wasn't competent to do. In modern ball, good hitters must become good bunters, but few can master both, and the stats don't measure the benefits of keeping the defense from the shift to defend against a credible bunt.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:10 PM on September 18, 2013


Needs more triple steal.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:54 AM on September 30, 2013




any major dude: "Dusty Baker is about to lead the Reds into the playoffs for the 3rd time in 6 years since taking over managerial duties for a team that had failed to make the post-season for 14 years prior to that. I'd say his little pinky knows more about baseball than Bill James."

AP Source: Dusty Baker out as Reds manager
posted by Chrysostom at 7:21 AM on October 4, 2013


I wish my hometown team would fire their guy and hire Dusty Baker today.
posted by bukvich at 8:46 AM on October 4, 2013


Maybe he'll just retire. But I doubt it. If there's a way to keep somebody in a game too long, Dusty Baker will find it.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:13 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


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