In Defense of Bunting (but Just a Little) | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

It seems that I’ve gone and started something on twitter. You know, Twitter, the place where you get to express deep, complex thoughts in 140 character bursts. Anyway, during Wednesday’s bunt-fest extraordinaire, I defended the tactical soundness of Carlos Gomez’s bunt in the 6th by remarking:

Well, I can’t be totally sure, but I think that may have inspired this post. I could go through it point by point, but I’ve been told in the past that it’s kind of a jerk move and since it’s  really good and not very long anyway,  you should just go read it and then we’ll get on with this.

Before going into any points raised, we need to get something out of the way: the bunt, specifically the sacrifice bunt, is a very over used strategy in baseball in general and by Brewers manager Ron Roenicke in specific. Giving up outs to advance base runners very seldom increases a team’s expected runs scored. Occasionally a team will misplay one, often as a result of the speed of the runner in question, and it won’t result in an out. Of course, on the other hand, no one gets down bunts 100% of the time and often times a batter will put himself behind in the count attempting to bunt and be forced to swing away with 2 strikes anyway, which decreases the odds of a safe hit. The uses are limited, and so should be the strategy.

There are, however, some instances where bunting makes sense, or at least more sense than at other times. When you have a player who is good at placing bunts in such a way that they can reach base a solid percentage of the time, in other words bunting for a hit, then it’s not really giving up an out anymore. Bunting with pitchers is probably done a little too much, especially when the pitcher in question can hit and the opposing hurler isn’t at his best, but it’s rarely a major loss to take the bat out of a pitcher’s hand. There are also some specific game situations where it really is the optimal strategy, such as when it can advance the game winning run into scoring position with one out. Mostly, though, sacrifice bunts fall somewhere between “not a great idea, but I guess I can live with it” to “fire the manager.” The bunts last night, though, I believe fall somewhere more towards the former than the latter on that spectrum.

First, let’s talk about the Aoki bunts, both to get them out of the way and because they’re much more simple to deal with. In both cases, he bunted in such a way that reaching base was possible, though moving the runners over was the main goal and it would have taken perfect placement or a misplay for him to reach. He also did so with Ryan Braun on deck. This resulted in both instances in Braun being walked and Ramirez grounding into what should have been two double plays, but thanks to the Dodgers failure to turn the second one was only one.

I wasn’t crazy about either move at the time (and said so in the case of the second one) and I’m still really not thrilled, but I do have one question nagging in the back of my mind: is it really such a bad thing to bait another manager into employing a sub optimal strategy of his own? Ron Roenicke had to have known that opening a base for Braun to be placed on was going to entice a manager like Don Mattingly walk him and thus give the Brewers a free base runner in front of Ramirez, who is one of the team’s better hitters. We know that Roenicke doesn’t really like to use the IBB himself (he was last in the NL using it in 2011) so he clearly understands the limitations of the play. It is at least interesting to ponder the worthiness of such a strategy, though taking the bat out of Braun’s hands isn’t exactly something a manager should take very lightly.

Anyway, time to moving on to the 6th inning, where things get a lot more interesting. With runners on 1st and 2nd with no outs and a tiring Clayton Kershaw on the mound, Roenicke elected to bunt. Under normal circumstances, Carlos Gomez bunting often leads to no outs and an additional base runner, at least at a rate where he’s not an “automatic out.”  But Wednesday wasn’t a  normal circumstance for Gomez. He’s still quite visibly not running at 100%, and so having him bunt makes this pretty close to giving up an out right in front of Martin Maldonado and the pitchers spot. As was pointed out in the linked post, there is reason to question this strategy, but I don’t think enough to completely condemn it.

First, I have to take issue with his calling Gomez “a good hitter” based on his 2 hits on that night to that point and his seasonal line against LHP. Just as I wouldn’t claim that Gomez bunting there was a good idea based on his lessened ability to bunt for a hit, neither should it be said that Gomez right now is swinging the bat like he was before being hurt. He quite obviously is not, which is at least partly evidenced by his 3 for 19, 7 K and 1 BB line since coming off the DL before Wednesday. Looking back a his two hits in his previous AB’s, it’s hard to really make the case that either was a well hit ball. Both were ground balls that found holes in the defense, not line drives that make one think “he’s really swinging the bat well.” Just watching him at the plate, it’s clear he’s still trying to find the groove he was in, quite likely due to the after effects of the injury itself.

So should Gomez have been bunting, given his less-than-pristine state? Looking at the win expectancy on fangraphs for the game, it did decrease the Brewers chances of winning the ballgame from 77.6% after the Ransom walk to 75.6% after the bunt. So case closed, it was the wrong move? Maybe, but if we’re going to say that, then we have to admit that the Maldonado safety squeeze perhaps wasn’t the worst thing in the world, as it increased the odds of a Brewers win up to 79.8%. In other words, the double-bunt increased the Brewers chances of winning from 77.6% to 79.8%. Hardly an earth shattering move on it’s surface, but it was a positive move at least in some sense.

What’s more, I think it can be argued without too much trouble that it really was an even better move in real win expectancy than that. When the inning started, the Brewers chances of winning were 68.1%. In effect, the team was given credit for a 9.5% jump in win expectancy just from the Weeks double and the Ransom walk, even though no runs had scored. This is based on historical data that calculates how likely it is that a team will win a game based on any score/inning/runner/out situation. The problem is that not all 0 out, runners on first and second situations are created equal, because who the pitchers, batters and even the base runners are matters in how likely it is that potential runs become real runs.

Given the fact that Gomez is hobbled, that Maldonado isn’t a great hitter and is new to big leagues, and that the pitcher’s spot was due third, I have a hard time saying that the Brewers had an average chance of scoring the expected amount. I don’t know what the Brewers “real” win expectancy should have been when Carlos Gomez came to the plate in the 6th inning, but I feel safe in saying that it’s something less than the 77.6% that fangraphs put it at on the assumption of “normal” pitcher/batter match ups. So that 2.2% increase that was the paper result of the double-bunt is almost certainly low in reality.

Right now, you’re probably thinking “yeah, but there was no guarantee that the double bunt would work, and you would be completely correct. We do know, though, that Carlos Gomez is an accomplished bunter, as he’s bunted successfully for hits 38.7% of the time he’s tried in his career and not all of that is due simply to speed. A guy has to at least get the bunt down in play somewhere a little out of the way to pull that off.  Add to that the fact that Martin Maldonado showed some ability in BP to get down the bunt, and it’s not hard to see why Roenicke had some reasonable faith in it working.

There is also the issue of saying this was just flat out playing for one run. Yes, it was sacrificing some possibility of more runs to try and secure one run, but we cannot ignore the chances of a misplay on one of the bunts (which didn’t happen) or the pitchers spot cashing in further (which did). Additionally, if the Brewers had failed to get that one run via that double-bunt, there is a very good chance that they would have pinch hit for the pitchers spot, covering some of the dangers and increasing to some degree the chances at a multiple run inning.

In the end, it’s hard to say just what should have been done.  Given the situation, I may well have been tempted to do exactly what Roenicke did,  trying hard to get that one run, knowing that it might backfire or that it might not even be limiting the team to one run if something goes really right. Of course, Roenicke probably would have done something similar to this if the situation were more favorable to a big inning as well, which would have made it less acceptable, but that’s a depressing thought for another day.

In the final analysis, I really do wish that Ron Roenick would bunt less. I wish he would stop structuring his lineup so that he wants to bunt as much as he does. He probably bunted too much on Wednesday night, though again, it would be interesting to hear him talk about the theory of bunting in front of Braun knowing that an IBB is likely. But in that 6th inning, given the situation, it’s really hard to make a good case that he actively hurt the team’s chances of winning the game. Perhaps he didn’t have enough faith in his guys to come through with the big inning, but given who those guys were and their particular handicaps, can you really blame him?

* Oh, and Paul, as soon as I’m done with Extra Innings from Baseball Prospectus, I will be reading the copy of The Book that I got for my birthday.

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