To sacrifice or not to sacrifice, that is the question
Data says teams shouldn't give up outs, but there are times when a bunt is called for
A sabermetrically inclined scribe interrogated Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez during his Winter Meetings media session last December, asking him why he had his team sacrifice so much in 2012.
"I was like, 'Really? Man, I don't even know the numbers,'" Gonzalez recalled. "He was kind of getting edgy with me."
What we have here is a topic that, remarkable as it might seem to outsiders, ignites plenty of passion in the industry of baseball: To bunt or not to bunt?
During the interview in question, the reporter, taking up the cause of those who abhor the idea of giving up outs, wanted to investigate Gonzalez's seeming overuse of the sacrifice strategy.
Only one problem: Gonzalez had actually bunted less than his average National League counterpart. Far less, in fact.
"After the press conference," Gonzalez said, "he comes back and says, 'You know what? You're right. I looked it up, and you didn't bunt as much as I thought.'"
Gonzalez laughed at the memory. But to some this bunt stuff is serious business. And if you want to pinpoint the area of most direct in-game disconnect between the sabermetric community and old-school sentimentality, the sac bunt is it.
"From a sabermetric standpoint," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge, "[the sac bunt] doesn't make sense. But the people that get intimidated by the world of sabermetrics are the ones worried about their job, because there are a lot of people that run the industry that are sabermetric people. You can't do that. You have to do what you feel is right. You have to see it from both sides."
Here's one side of the story: The sac bunt is stupid. Or "overrated," as Rays manager Joe Maddon recently put it.
"For that group of people out there that want guys to bunt all the time," Maddon told reporters asking him why he didn't bunt late in a loss to the Red Sox last month, "you don't know the outcome when you choose to do that."
To bunt or not to bunt?
|First and second||0||1.44|
|Second and third||1||1.29|
Last season, according to Baseball Prospectus data, in the two most common situations for a sac bunt, your expectation for scoring a run was actually greater if you let the hitter swing away rather than give up an out via a bunt. With a runner at first and no outs, you had a 24.4 percent better chance of scoring a run than you did with a runner at second and one out. With runners at first and second and no outs, you had a 10.4 percent better chance of scoring a run than you did with runners at second and third and one out.
Keep in mind: This is actual data from a full season, not a hypothetical projection. And it backs up the mentality of a pitcher like Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, who said he is all for the opposition bunting on him in those situations.
"I just think it's an easy out," Hamels said. "I'll take the easy out and work on the next guy, even if he's at third base. They still have to get a hit to move 90 feet. So you've got a lot of options. Outs are hard to come by sometimes, so you might as well take that out while you can."
Certain organizations treasure those outs, and the A's, whose numbers-crunching approach to roster construction became the stuff of Hollywood legend, are among them. Through Wednesday, manager Bob Melvin's club had logged just 31 sacrifice hits by non-pitchers since Opening Day 2012. In contrast, the Angels had 53 and the Brewers 51.
Sac bunts by non-pitchersSince Opening Day 2012
"When you're down a run or even in a tie situation and you have the bats you know can get the job done, I think you're better off having three guys taking a swing at it rather than giving up an out," Melvin said. "And you have to remember, the bunt is also not a given."
No, a poorly executed and placed bunt can allow the defense to eliminate the lead runner or, worse yet, turn a double play.
And you don't need advanced metrics to know that's a bad thing.
But here's the other side of the story: Even those who recognize and realize the mathematical risk involved still do it from time to time.
That's because the game has ebbs and flows no calculator can account for.
"[On Wednesday] night, I had [Adam] Rosales bunting early in the game against [Justin] Masterson," Melvin said. "Once you see a guy is pitching well and is tough on right-handers and you have a situation where you're trying to score the first run of the game in the third or fourth inning, I might do it. But mostly for me, it's toward the end of the game, when you only need one run to win the game."
Remember that aforementioned situation involving Maddon and the Rays? It was April 13 -- a 1-1 game in the top of the ninth. The Rays' offense, which was averaging just 3.5 runs per game at that point and had once again labored that day against Jon Lester and the Boston bullpen, had runners at first and second with no outs. James Loney went up to bat, and Maddon let him swing away, ignoring the relative struggles of his lineup and of Loney (.630 OPS at that juncture) in particular.
Loney struck out. The next two batters, Yunel Escobar and Ryan Roberts, went down quickly, and the inning was over. The Rays wound up losing in extras.
Maddon stuck by his decision, and he had all that run-expectancy data to support it. But that data relating to the Rays' runs per game and Loney's output was compelling in its own right. The second-guessers had ground on which to stand.
Mike Scioscia stands by the sac bunt, even as his offensive personnel has changed considerably the last two years, from a unit built on small ball to one reliant on big bashers. Scioscia's Angels have employed the sac bunt by position players more than any other club the past season-plus.
"I think it comes down to situations," Scioscia said. "The one thing about generalized statistics is, they're not as matchup-specific as I think they can be. I think there are absolutely times where you want pitchers to earn that out. And there are definitely times where you want to put pressure on the other team, where you don't know if you've got the three hits coming in an inning that's going to score the run. And you want to move the runner over and try to get that one hit to fall in that's going to be a game-changing run."
Knowing your personnel is critical. Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, a Scioscia disciple, asked second-year shortstop Jean Segura to squeeze bunt during a recent road game in Los Angeles, and Segura did not get the bat on the ball.
"I want to know if I can do that again with him, or if he's just a guy I say, 'Forget it' and let him swing away," Roenicke said. "So it's learning the personnel. I would rather just sit back and just have great at-bats and hammer the ball. But I don't think our offense, even though we ended up leading the league in runs last year, I don't think we have the same offense that St. Louis has. Now, that doesn't mean we can't score the same amount of runs, but I don't think we have the same team that they have. ... If I'm looking at their personnel, I'm probably not bunting very often."
Those who do believe in the benefits of the bunt point to its intangible effects.
"At the end of the day, the game is played by guys with heartbeats," Phillies third baseman Michael Young said. "And a sacrifice bunt puts pressure on the defense and the pitcher. Maybe it's not always the right move, but I have a problem with saying it's never the right move. There are no absolutes in this game. If you're playing against a team that's struggling and you put a runner in scoring position late in the game, they're going to feel it a little more."
Feelings on this matter vary from organization to organization, and that's something managerial candidates know to keep in mind. Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo has interviewed for three vacancies over the years and been asked for his opinion on the sac bunt all three times.
"My answer has been very consistent," Lovullo said. "It's about who's coming up, the matchups, the pitcher, and how we feel about a big inning versus scoring first or scoring one run. I think certain organizations will tell you never to bunt, and certain organizations will say they'd love to win a game 2-1, because that's what they're built on. I don't think there's one way. My answer is to pay attention to the situation."
Indeed, like most things in life, the correct answer likely lies in the shades of gray and not in either extreme. The game is too complex for either absolute to be true.
But the availability of advanced data has made the sac bunt one of baseball's great debates.