A common conundrum encountered by enthusiasts of NPB is that of the sac bunt. It happens all the time, especially in the Central League where there’s no designated hitter (DH).
And because of the absence of a DH, the pitcher often has to hit. You can occasionally find guys that know how to swing a baseball bat, but in general the pitcher is an easy out. Therefore, most would agree that it’s better to move the runner over than to waste an out (an “unproductive out”, if you will) on a strikeout or a pop-fly.
And then there’s the most-annoying-case scenario: the pitcher hits into a double play, and the team is in worse shape than if he had simply struck out!
But the simple answer to the title of this article is: it depends on who’s doing the bunting.
Aoki’s on first with no outs? Great, sac bunt! (how many times have we seen that this season?)
The big problem, of course, is that Tanaka is not a pitcher.
Not that Tanaka can’t bunt, because he definitely can, but why would you want a hitter with a .343 on-base percentage (OBP) to play against the odds and ensure that the team is that much closer to not scoring a run?!
And fair enough, there are definitely late inning, tight game situations where the team desperately needs to manufacture a single run, and one method of doing that is to sacrifice bunt.
But it must be kept in mind that bunting in such a situation doesn’t actually increase the team’s chances of scoring a run. Every out brings the end of the inning/game closer, and therefore outs have been shown to be an extremely valuable commodity.
See, there are these things called Expected Runs Matrices that have been around for years, and they consistently demonstrate that having a man on first with no outs is statistically closer to scoring a run than having a man on second with one out. It’s that simple. Not that our manager, Takada, is paying attention, however.
And that is where the sac bunt is used the most often (no outs; man on first)–just like in the Aoki-Tanaka situation mentioned above.
I mentioned yesterday that it might be about time to revisit this topic, and in the unending spirit of producing advice and data that Takada neither cares about nor understands, here are the results of some number-crunching that I did this evening.
Building on the idea that sacrifice bunts with no outs and a man on first rarely lead to a run being scored, and all of the moaning that I did in my sac bunting report from last year, I wanted to find a more simplified way to analyze the idiocy that several NPB managers adhere to. Our own Shigeru Takada ordered no less than eight sac bunts over the last two days, and only one of them was carried out by a pitcher!
A quick look at the circumstances surrounding those eight giveaway outs shows that no runs scored as a direct result of them. They were indeed wasted and ultimately unproductive outs.
However, two measly games does not provide nearly enough data to back up my central point: bunting with no outs and a man on first is nearly always a bad idea. So I decided to do some quick counting on all of the NPB games that have been played since the All-Star break last month. In all, I analyzed 34 baseball games of nine or more innings (which is still not enough to unequivocally support my thesis, but anyway…).
My goal was to see how many runs could be expected to cross home plate as a direct result of a sac bunt. All bunts mentioned in this survey were with no outs and a man on first base. In some situations there were multiple men on base, but this was the exception rather than the rule. The only times that the influence of a sac bunt was negated was when a triple or home run cleared the bases and cancelled the idea that the bunt was a “productive out”.
At the same time, I also gauged how often managers opted to let their hitters swing away with a man on first and no outs. A common reason for instituting the sac bunt is to avoid a double play, so I kept track of double plays as well. Furthermore, I tallied how many runs were scored in innings where sac bunts were not employed.
Because of the DH rule, bunts are a bit fewer and farther between in the Pacific League (23 to the Central League’s 34). However, there were still plenty of them to go around. It should also be noted that I did not attempt to control for fielding errors or other such anomalies that might artificially inflate the number of runs scored. Therefore, it is probably safe to say that this analysis is being quite generous in its consideration of how productive sac bunts have been since the end of July.
There were 57 bunts in the 34 games that I sifted through. Each of them came with no outs and a man on first base, and a total of 14 runs scored following the bunt being laid down. This accounts for roughly 0.23 runs crossing home plate per bunt.
This compares unfavorably with the relative run value of the decision not to bunt in the same situation. There were a total of 156 instances where a man was on first with no outs, and the manager did not call for a sac bunt. I will call these situations, in acknowledgment of the common fear, double play opportunities (DPOs).
As can be expected, a chunk of those DPOs did actually end with the worst-case scenario. Double plays were turned on 20 occasions, accounting for 13% of all DPOs. While double plays are definitely a momentum shifter, it’s difficult to see how a 13% chance of something happening is scary enough to pass up on Tanaka’s 34% OBP. Miyamoto, another Tokyo player frequently called upon to bunt, has an OBP of 33%. In fact, there isn’t a single hitter (with at least 20 at-bats this season) on the the Tokyo Swallows first team that has an OBP lower than 13% (or .130 in baseball lingo).
I’m obviously simplifying things here, but it’s not that hard to see why we might want to limit sac bunts to players who can’t control the strike zone (and draw a walk) or swing a bat effectively.
Aside from the double plays that were actually turned, there were obviously many other outs recorded. However, 101 runs scored from those 156 DPOs. That works out to a simplified run expectancy of about 0.65 runs per decision not to give up an out for free. That is more than 2.5 times the run value attributed to a sacrifice bunt.
One of the limitations of this analysis is that it deals with a very small number of games. A more in-depth coverage of Expected Runs is in order within NPB so that we can see how closely the numbers match the available data from MLB.
However, no matter how small the sample size is, there seems to be little doubt that larger-scale studies will corroborate the available evidence.
Many a manager’s fallback strategy, the sacrifice bunt, can be attributed to any one of a number of influences. One of them is pure habit. The sac bunt has been an integral part of baseball for as long as these men and their fathers have been alive.
Another reason might be the desire to save face. Getting a guy on second base, no matter what the cost, makes it look like you created a chance to score. And that seems to count for a lot, especially in Japan.
However, in the beautiful words of Little Brother, some of us have already “…reach[ed] the conclusion that every now and then you gotta ask yourself: do you really want to win or just look good losing?”
And some managers have started to listen to the logical arguments (and maybe Little Brother as well) against the kneejerk application of such a wasteful strategy. More importantly, they have shown that it is possible to win while using it sparingly (or hardly at all).
Recently we’ve begun to see an ever-so-slight move away from its use in Japan. Managers like Trey Hillman (Hokkaido Fighters) and Bobby Valentine (Chiba Marines) only occasionally use(d) it. New Saitama Lions manager, Hisanobu Watanabe, last year’s Japan Series Champion manager, rarely bunts at all, and all three of those gentlemen have won a championship within the last four years.
Chunichi’s manager, Hiromitsu Ochiai, has also been known to bunt sparingly, and he won a championship two years ago.
A growing mountain of evidence is showing that their way of playing baseball leads to more runs being scored. More runs often mean more wins, and enough of those could lead to a berth in the playoffs. It’s very hard to deny the intuitive appeal of such a simple equation. Thus, it is shocking that a manager would do anything to decrease his team’s chances of scoring runs and winning baseball games. Sacrifice bunting, except when it’s me or someone else who doesn’t know how to hit at the plate, is simply betting against the odds.
The current survey shows that baseball managers would be wise to be more conservative in their use of the sacrifice bunt. Having competent hitters bunt doesn’t make sense. Betting against the odds will obviously work on occasion, but it doesn’t pan out very well over the length of an entire season.