Ned Yost gets roasted by some fans just about every time his team lays a bunt down, but Thursday night Angels manager Mike Scioscia was doing the same thing. So what’s up with all the bunting?
Here’s one of the reasons some fans don’t like the sacrifice bunt: from 1993 to 2010 with a runner on first and nobody out, an average of 0.941 runs scored. During that same time period, with a runner on second and one out, an average of 0.721 runs scored. So sacrifice bunts actually decrease the chances of a run scoring, right?
As usual, the real answer is: "It depends."
In reality, those numbers would change every night depending on the players involved. It’s also comparing apples and oranges: runner on first, nobody out has already happened—that’s over. You can’t quit while you’re ahead and cash in your 0.941 runs. A manager has to bet on what might happen next on that particular night. And what happens next might be worse than a runner on second with one out.
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A strikeout leaves you with a runner on first, one out; so does a fielder’s choice. A double play leaves you with no runners on and two outs. Let the batter swing away and any kind of hit will leave you in a better situation, so the true choice might look something like this:
According to Baseball Reference the Kansas City Royals have hit .230 off Jered Weaver—of course individual numbers vary—but for simplicity’s sake let’s say if you let the batter swing away you’ll wind up in a better situation than one down, runner on second about 23% of the time. KC has an on-base percentage of .283 against Weaver so if you think he’s struggling with his command that night throw a walk into the odds as well; now you wind up in a better situation about 28% of the time.
But that still means you’re in a worse situation than a runner on second and one down over 70% of the time.
That’s why some managers bunt: if the guy at the plate can handle a bat and gets his bunts down at a high rate, the manager will take the bird in the hand. But all this depends on who is at the plate, how they’re swinging the bat and how the pitcher is throwing that night. In some situations swinging away might look like a better choice, on other nights taking the runner on second and one down would look like a better bet. There’s no one right answer and saying there is doesn’t make it so.
How playoff baseball is different
Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane has been quoted as saying: "My (stuff) doesn’t work in the playoffs."
One thing that immediately comes to mind is the quality of pitching. Once you get to the playoffs the weaker teams have been eliminated and the overall pitching should get better. If you’re depending on walks and home runs to score and you run into an ace that’s dealing, walks and home runs might become scarce.
And an approach that’s successful over 162 games might not be working on that particular night and if you’re facing elimination that’s a problem. Teams who have a variety of ways to score runs—teams that can manufacture a run—might be in better shape.
It’s not fantasy baseball
In fantasy baseball you win by individuals putting up numbers, so you don’t want to see your players give away outs by bunting or moving runners with grounders to the right side of the infield. In real life you win by teams scoring runs and the 27 outs you have to work with are shared; you use them to move runners around the bases and ultimately, cross the plate.
Take Alex Gordon’s fifth-inning run in Thursday night’s win against the Angels.
Gordon led off with a double, Salvador Perez moved him to third base with a long fly ball and Omar Infante drove Gordon in with a sacrifice fly: one hit, two productive outs against a pitcher who was dealing—Jered Weaver gave up three hits over seven innings—and the Royals scored a run.
Mike Moustakas hit the game-winning home run in the eleventh—and nobody is going to turn down a home run—but betting on something that Moustakas hadn’t done since August is at best a long shot. The Royals ability to manufacture runs with a minimum of hits, stolen bases and productive outs is one of the reasons they’ve made it as far as they have.
That’s what’s up with all the bunting.