Friday, July 1, 2016

The Side Effects of Bunting

            The Braves, Phillies, Brewers, Rockies, and Reds are near the bottom of the standings in the National League, but they are all in the top five in one category… Sacrifice bunts.
             Back in the day, bunts seemed to be an essential part of the game of baseball. Get a runner on, get him over, and get him in. That’s “ABC baseball” and it’s something teams swore by until the recent sabermetric revolution many teams began following.
            Pitchers bunting is one thing, but far too often it seems like teams are having more and more batters sacrifice their at-bat in an effort to squeeze one run out of an inning. Regardless if the opposing pitcher has walked two batters and looked totally off, teams continue to bail them out by giving away outs. It’s almost as if teams are settling for one run when they could potentially score two or three runs easily, if they wouldn’t give away an important out.
            Over the weekend, I watched the Braves and Mets play… I found myself becoming more and more angered at the decision-making put in place by the Braves decision making. During the game Friday night, Tyler Flowers led off the ninth inning with a single and Erick Aybar was hit by a pitch… Thus, giving Atlanta two base runners with no outs. With the winning run at the plate and no outs, Brian Snitker called on Chase d'Arnaud to pinch hit. He immediately hit into a double play while trying to advance the runners with a bunt. Nobody seems to want to ask why he’d call upon his pinch hitter to bunt (if you’re going to do that, why not just use a starting pitcher instead of wasting a bench bat?). But this move was a classic Barves moment and yet another game lost by Atlanta via poor managing. 
Freddie Freeman bunting... Because why not? (AP Photo/John Raoux)
            After all of that, the Braves found themselves in a similar situation during the game Saturday night. Jace Peterson led off the inning with a single and Ender Inciarte followed with a sacrifice bunt. Traditional fans may see this as playing for a run, but this essentially gave the Mets a free out and opened up first base. Which, the Mets immediately intentionally walked Freddie Freeman to set up a double play. Nick Markakis hit directly into the defense and the Mets turned a game ending double play.
            This is just a small snippet of a disastrous season that the Braves are going through. It’s also just another reminder of how important it is to have a manager and front office that embraces a more analytical approach. It’s easy to second-guess managers when things do not work out, but there’s an abundance of data available to illustrate how bunting only decreases a team’s chances of scoring a run.
            The most surprising stat to me is that the Angels have 23 sacrifice bunts. That’s right, an American League team has had 23 sacrifice bunts…. That’s five more sacrifice bunts than the closest American League team (Royals) and the Angels have more bunts than eight National League teams. The Angels have played 15 interleague games, but looking over their team stats, I found that they’ve had no sacrifice bunts by pitchers. This is a lineup that features five batters with an OPS+ over 100 and arguably the best player in Major League Baseball, Mike Trout. If you do a quick Google search for “Mike Scioscia bunting” you’ll be rewarded with numerous articles expressing their anger towards his calls for sacrifice bunts. What’s even more appalling to me is how the Rockies can have the second most bunts in baseball (32) and the majority of those bunts are by DJ LeMahieu, who has a .326/.394/.496 slash line… And he’s the guy dropping down sacrifice bunts and giving himself up for lesser hitters to drive runners in.
            The Braves, Reds, Phillies, Brewers, Rockies, and Angels are a combined 195-264 this season. Personally, I don’t think it’s much a coincidence that the worst teams in baseball are some of the most frequent bunters in the game. The majority of these teams employ “old-school” managers who seem more worried about managing to not lose rather than managing to win.
            The bunt will never truly go away. As long as the National League continues to go without the DH, we will always see pitchers batting and trying to lay down sacrifice bunts. That might also be changing given the offensive explosion by National League pitchers at the plate this season. In Madison Bumgarner’s last start, San Francisco elected to forgo having a DH in the line-up and allowed Bumgarner to bat for himself. The result? Bumgarner went 1-for-4 at the plate with one run and a strikeout. His hit, however, was a line drive to center field that had 103-mph exit velocity, according to MLB StatCast. Will more teams follow suit and allow their star pitchers, who can swing the bat, a chance to bat for themselves? Or will they always be reduced to dropping down bunts because that’s what “the book says to do!!”  By the way, where can one purchase the book that old-school managers go by? Is it located next to the aisle where they sell hats to tip? Hmm… In the end, I guess it is easier for managers to justify a batter bunting instead of swinging away in a run-scoring situation. However, baseball is an ever-changing sport. Some teams have adapted, but others are being left in the dust. Some teams are complaining about shifts, bullpen micro-managing, and pitching limits on young pitchers, but they seem to have no problem with putting themselves at a run scoring disadvantage by bunting. Here’s a great clip from the movie “Moneyball” that sums up things nicely. 


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