The sacrifice bunt has become one of the more hated plays in and around the game of baseball over the last two to three years. Statisticians see it as a waste of an out, while managers and “old school” baseball people see it as getting a runner that much closer to scoring. The basic argument over the sacrifice is what people see as more valuable: an out or the location of a runner.
Sabermetricians (the guys who study advanced baseball statistics) will argue that there are only 27 outs in a game and if they are given away, it decreases the chances of scoring. Old school baseball guys will argue that a runner on second has a better chance of scoring a run than a runner on first does. The problem is that both sides are technically correct....in the proper context. For every out recorded, the chances a team has of scoring decreases their run expectancy over a period of time. However, a runner on second base has a better chance of scoring than a runner on first and of course, a runner on third has a greater chance of crossing the plate than a runner on second or first, with a single, sacrifice fly, wild pitch or a number of scenarios.
In the world of Major League Baseball, and especially in the Rangers community there is a huge outcry against the bunt, at any point in a game. We have developed Twitter hashtags, t-shirts and there is even a comedian on YouTube with anti-bunt content. The sacrifice bunt has turned from a “small ball” play into outright hate from some of us.
Why do we hate the bunt so much?
The play itself is one of unselfishness. A batter bunts and sacrifices himself into an out, moving a runner ahead to the next base, all for the betterment of the team. You would think Americans would love that. A player gives themselves up for the greater good? What a heroic gesture.
Not so fast.
With the advent of advanced statistics, there is a new way of thinking in the world of baseball. Before Bill James, the godfather of baseball analytics, the sacrifice bunt was thought of as a smart play. Moving the runner closer to scoring was always the method implemented throughout the game. What Mr. James and other Sabermetricians did, was to study how valuable an out really was. They discovered that a team has a better chance of scoring by NOT bunting. Meaning that a team has a better chance of scoring a run with a runner on first base and no outs than they do with a runner on second and one out. These number are based on years of data and not on a single inning, but they do hold water.
The reason we have begun to hate the sacrifice, especially in Texas, is that not only do the numbers support hitting away, but people seem to hate the idea of giving away anything. We’ve gone from championing a play that is unselfish; to despising the play because it is a waste of an out. In addition, potentially having sluggers like Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland miss a chance to hit late in the game, because an out was wasted early, rubs people the wrong way.
There are people that think that the bunt has a place in the game, including Rangers manager Ron Washington. He was recently asked about baseball analytics and what he thought about people saying that he should not bunt,
“I think if they try to do that, they’re going to be telling me how to [expletive] manage”
Wash is an old school guy who believes in moving runners via the bunt. A lot of fans and writers are analytics people who are not fond of the bunt. There is very little common ground on the subject. There are people that think the bunt is okay later in the game during a tie or a one run deficit. Those people believe the 90 feet advancement is more valuable than the out they are giving up in the seventh inning or beyond.
Here is the humorous thing about bunting late in games: If Wash calls for the bunt with no outs in the first, he gives up 3.7% of the remaining outs in a game. If he calls for the bunt with one out in the eighth, he gives up 20% or 1/5th of the remaining outs. Diminished odds of 20% is not the smart play, in my opinion.
Both sides are staunchly dug in on the subject. It’s the “left versus right” of baseball. There are two things we don’t talk about at parties: politics and religion. I am personally adding sacrifice bunts to that list.