Baseball is a game practically tailor made to inspire passionate debate and few things spark more debate among it’s fans than managers decisions to bunt or abstain from bunting. Among the analytically inclined (like the writers on this site), bunting is more often than not frowned upon as a sub optimal strategy. Among fans not so statistically inclined, it often seems that no amount of bunting is ever enough. Personally, I’m generally anti-bunting by nature, but I’ve been known to defend it from time to time as well.
If you’re a regular on twitter and follow the same people that I do, you’ve probably seen the moniker “RRR” used, and of course that stands for “Runnin’ Ron Roenicke.” He picked that up after comments early in his tenure that he wanted his team to “be aggressive” on the basepaths and “put pressure on opponents.” After Ken Macha put the brakes on the running game, the players (many of whom possess above average speed) happily embraced that aggressive style. The team started stealing more than they did under Macha, and they did so at pretty solid success rates. For the most part, fans have embraced this type of aggression from the Brewers.
What hasn’t been nearly so embraced is Roenicke’s much ballyhooed affinity for the sacrifice bunt. Buntin’ Ron’s Brewers lead the National League (and MLB) in both 2011 and 2012 in what Baseball Prospectus calls “Sacrifice Attempts” with 117 and 129, respectively. In the first two years on the job, BRR had his Brewers averaging 123 attempts per year, which works out to be .75 per game. That’s a little more than 20 per month. If that seems like a lot, it’s because it was. Quite a bit.
This is where we get to the interesting part. Through their first one month, and 25 games in 2013, the Brewers have attempted 12 sacrifices. 12 is good for 11th out of the 15 NL teams thus far. Only the Nationals, Cubs, Phillies and Mets have attempted fewer sacrifices than the Brewers. It’s .48 per game and a pace for 77.8 over the course of 162 games. This is an interesting development to say the least.
Before going further with just what this means, it’s necessary to throw out a few caveats. First, it’s not 100% clear just how these numbers are defined. Prospectus doesn’t go into detail how it categorizes these occurrences, so all we can really do is compare like numbers to like numbers and assume that things have stayed the same from year to year from a definition perspective. Also, this is just one month of a 6 month season. It’s conceivable that circumstances have just curtailed BRR’s natural instincts a bit, and that over the course of the next 5 months he’ll work to reclaim his dubious title.
Still, the fact that they’ve gone from top of the heap in sacrificing to below the middle of the pack was eye opening. Like many others, I’ve just assumed that every time I saw a bunt attempt this year, it was a continuation of the trend that had the Brewers leading the way in giving up outs to advance runners. That simply hasn’t been the case, and at some point we’ll have to just acknowledge that something has changed and that the old narrative no longer applies. We’re not there yet, but if the trend continues, we will get there soon enough.
If it does come to pass over the long term that Ron is no longer the massive bunter he once was, it’s not without precedent. The patron saint of swinging away, Mr. “Pitching, defense and 3 run homers” Earl Weaver actually was a prolific bunt caller early in his career. He dropped that as time went on, so it’s worth noting that managers do evolve over time.
It’s hard to say this early just what might have inspired this change in philosophy, but it certainly would be in keeping with the stated preferences of his boss, general manager Doug Melvin. At least twice this spring, Melvin has stated his basic philosophy publicly on out conservation: he’s for it. If he’s speaking to the media about this, it seems logical that he would probably also be speaking to his field boss about it. At some point, perhaps once it’s a little more firmly established as a real and lasting change, it would be interesting to hear Roenicke or Melvin comment on this.
Ultimately, bunting (as with most in game managerial decisions) is a somewhat overrated topic of discussion. It inspires passionate debates, but the reality is that it’s still something done less than once a game in the extreme. Giving up an out a game may be suboptimal, but it’s not destroying anyone’s run scoring averages by major amounts. Especially in the NL, where a lot of those outs are being given up by weak hitting pitchers anyway. Still, it would be nice to see it hold as a trend. Little things do add up, and divisions and wildcards are often won by 1 game margins.