In the 1870s, just as professional baseball was getting its sea legs, there was an infielder named Ross Barnes who was really only good at one thing. At 5 feet 8 inches and 145 pounds, he had a smidge of pop in this deadest part of the dead-ball era, hitting six home runs in almost 500 career games, but where Barnes really excelled was bunting. As recounted by Bill James in his most recent Historical Baseball Abstract, Barnes made a career of being able to bunt balls that would land fair and then spin over the base lines and off the field. (In the rules of the day, this still counted as a fair ball.) And so it was that Barnes led the league in hits four times and batting average three times.
Ross Barnes would’ve loved playing for Dusty Baker, the 64-year-old Cincinnati Reds manager who, in an era when almost every player is at least something of a threat to hit a double or home run, still has a passion for the strategy of intentionally clunking the ball down softly a few feet in front of a defense that knows it’s coming. (We’re not talking here about using fast hitters to lay down a bunt against unsuspecting infielders. That’s actually pretty good strategy!) Baker’s Reds lead the league in “successful” sacrifice bunts (or, to put it another way, bunts that “successfully” give away one of the three outs teams get per inning), and they’re in the top third of the league in sacrifice bunts by non-pitchers.
Through all the rule changes and improvements that baseball has implemented through 137 years of professional existence, the bunt has persisted. It’s perhaps the strongest legacy of the game’s small-ball origins. And aside from everything Alex Rodriguez does, there’s perhaps no single act on a baseball field that engenders such ridicule and furor among dedicated fans. We’ve known for decades that its efficacy was wildly overrated even in earlier, less power-friendly eras, yet it persists: purposely sacrificing outs in critical game situations to move a runner one single base.
No current manager loves the sacrifice bunt more than Baker. A couple weeks ago, his Reds attempted four such bunts in a span of eight hitters. The outcomes were largely unsuccessful for the Reds, who lost in 16 innings. The sacrificial parade reached its nadir in the bottom of the 15th inning, when the Reds attempted what amounted to a suicide squeeze — Shin-Soo Choo took off from third, Chris Heisey tried to bunt — except that there were two outs, so if Heisey didn’t make contact and Choo was toast, we’d go on to the 16th inning. (The inning also would’ve been over if Choo crossed the plate but Heisey didn’t get to first safely to make the run official.)
So what happened? I’ll give you three guesses, though you only need one:
The next morning, ESPN’s Buster Olney ripped the Reds for their “bunt addiction,” one of a few pieces calling out the team’s buntalicious ways. But they’re not only team with the habit: The Dodgers, Brewers, Nationals, and Giants sacrifice almost as much as the Reds.
The odd thing about the bunt’s persistence is that neither data nor common sense support its use. First, the data. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball is a tri-authored 2007 tome that’s downright biblical among many sabermetricians. There’s an excellent chapter called “To Sacrifice or Not.” It’s 50 pages of bunting analysis that builds on work first done by Pete Palmer and John Thorn back in the early 1980s. (Thorn is now the official historian of Major League Baseball.)
The Book is loathe to settle on universal conclusions — there are countless variables in a baseball game, and in some specific circumstances the sacrifice bunt can be the right play. But its authors make their opinion on the most common sacrifice-bunt situation plainly clear:
If the opposing manager is thinking about attempting a sacrifice (with a runner on first and no outs and a non-pitcher at the plate), tell him that you will gladly give the runner second base in exchange for an out. In fact, tell him that he has that option — in advance — any time there is a runner on first and no outs!
Using numbers collected over a 17-season span in the ’60s and ’70s — i.e., a LOT of data, not a small sample taken to speculative conclusions — Palmer and Thorn calculated how many runs the average offense scores in an inning given every possible game situation (no one on/no outs, runner on first/no outs, runners on first and second/no outs…). Most sacrifice bunts occur when there’s a runner on first with no outs. In those situations the average offense will go on to score 0.783 runs. Let’s say a sacrifice bunt in that situation is successful, as Dusty Baker hopes. Now you have a runner on second and one out. The average offense with a runner on second and one out scores 0.699 runs. The run expectancy has decreased thanks to the sacrifice bunt. Sacrificing an out to get a runner to second makes a team less likely to score, not more. (The specific numbers have changed as offenses have gotten more potent, but the gist remains the same.)
As Palmer and Thorn conclude in the book that accompanied their original data, “With the introduction of the lively ball, the sacrifice bunt should have vanished.”
But ignore the data for a second. Let’s just consider all the things that have to go right for a successful sacrifice bunt. First, you need a runner on first with decent speed. You might sub in a pinch runner if not. (Now you’ve really upped the stakes because you’ve essentially burned a bench spot in the hopes that this scheme works out.) Then the guy at the plate has to lay down a perfectly placed bunt — something that, even on bunt-happy teams, he’s not getting a chance to attempt in competition more than once every few games. He can’t pop it up, miss altogether, or accidentally hit the ball so hard the pitcher can still field it in time to get an out at second. Then, to score, you need to get another hit in the inning — in which you now have one less out to work with.
You’d think a scenario that’s so contrived and complex and arcane would have to be worth the trouble and effort that goes into it, or else managers would stop calling for it. But that’s simply not the case.
All this analysis is all old hat to baseball’s more progressive-thinking writers and fans, but it hasn’t resonated with the old guard of MLB managers. (It’s not a coincidence that stat-savvy clubs like Tampa Bay, Boston, and Oakland all rank near the very bottom of the league in sacrifices. And, some might add, are usually near the top of the win column.) Baker was not the least bit apologetic after his team’s 16-inning loss a couple of weeks back, and informed the media that Heisey bunted on his own volition, not because Baker told him to. Of course, it’s Baker who has fostered such a bunt-happy culture during his tenure in Cincinnati. With three bunts in the previous seven batters, you can’t help but wonder where Heisey got his inspiration.
Why does the sacrifice bunt still happen so often and in the wrong situations? I put that question to baseball writers who talk to players and managers almost every day. Taken together, their answers add up to something that ALMOST makes sense:
• It’s a completely in-game decision, which means it’s at the discretion of baseball’s most old-school group — managers — rather than front-office types. (The Arizona Republic and azcental.com’s Nick Piecoro):
Most of the real innovative thinking going in the game is at the front office level, a place where there generally aren’t a ton of former players. Well, most of them played in college but didn’t cut their teeth in the sort of groupthink-ish world of pro baseball.
• A lot of these managers learned and played the game in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when pitchers were dominating the game, and at that time a strategy that prioritized scoring a single run over having more chances at a big inning made relatively more sense. (SI.com’s Jay Jaffe):
What comes to mind is that many managers with an affinity for the bunt such as Dusty Baker, Ron Washington (Texas), Clint Hurdle (Pittsburgh), Ned Yost (Milwaukee), Mike Scioscia (Angels), and Don Mattingly (Dodgers) — all of whose teams are in the upper third as far as position player sac bunts go — are old enough to have played during a time when scoring was considerably lower and one-run strategies made more sense than they do now.
Not that some of the managers who eschew the bunt don’t date to that time, but their front offices may have played a significant role in reining a similar tendency in; that’s almost certainly the case with the Rays, Red Sox, and A’s.
• It helps managers feel like they’re doing their job. (Yahoo Sports’ Dave Brown):
“I’m just sitting here, watching a baseball game, when I could be AFFECTING its outcome by telling one of my players to pull his bat back and lay one down!”
• If it doesn’t work, the player who missed the bunt gets the blame. But if it does, the manager gets the credit. (Baseball Prospectus’ Sam Miller):
I don’t think it’s a conscious, self-serving thing, but I imagine it creates feelings of love, satisfaction, and self-worth for a manager to successfully call for a play and see it executed.
• You’ve got to keep your players ready for the times that scoring one run actually IS more important than the chance for a big inning. (King Kaufman, Bleacher Report’s writer program manager and co-editor of the 2012 and 2013 Baseball Prospectus annuals):
If the defense fears a bunt, they’ll creep in at the corners, and that improves your chances for a hit when swinging away. You have to bunt sometimes to make them fear it. Also, let’s say you’re in the World Series, tie game, two on and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth and a lesser hitter up. You want him to bunt. It would be nice if that were not the first time all year you’ve asked him to do that.
Taking everything into consideration, ESPN’s Keith Law sums up the debate thusly:
I think there are three main reasons. One is an argument from tradition — this is how we’ve always done it, this is how we did it when I played, etc. Another is fear of second-guessing, the “no one ever got fired for buying from IBM” argument, where bunting is still seen by enough people as the obvious move that managers won’t rock the boat. And the third is just a general fear, distrust, or ignorance of math, a perception still prevalent within the industry that you can’t quantify what’s happening on the field even if you’re dealing with enormous generalized samples. Baseball attracts many intellectuals as fans, and yet at times, within the industry, you will still run into an anti-intellectualism that can make your jaw drop.
All the numbers say that sacrifice bunting (by and large) isn’t worth the risk, that there are savvier ways to try to create runs, that an out conceded is usually an out wasted. And yet, for these reasons of history, psychology, and nerd-hating-ology, the bunt endures, like a cockroach crawling around baseball’s basement, even as other relatively new practices (like using OPS and WAR more than batting average) become uncontroversial. At this point, after all we’ve learned over the past 30 years, calling for the sacrifice bunt feels like muscle memory more than anything else. Fans (especially those in Cincinnati) should expect better.
Oh, and whatever happened to Ross Barnes, he of the 19th-century bunting prowess? His career hit an abrupt and steady decline after the 1876 season, most likely due to illness (although some have posited that the rule change banning fair-to-foul hits played some role as well). Weirdly enough, the man who was once known for a skill that’s so thoroughly despised by today’s sabermetricians was just honored as this year’s most overlooked baseball player of the 19th century…by SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research.
It’s too bad Barnes was 140 years ahead of his time. Dusty Baker would’ve made him a millionaire.