Tuesday marks legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver’s 82nd birthday. Weaver is something of a hero to sabermetricians; he was one of the first inside baseball men to openly eschew “small ball” tactics like the hit-and-run and the sacrifice bunt. He was famous for at least two quotations that are key to sabermetric thought today: “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get,” and “On offense, your most precious possessions are your 27 outs.”
These are key concepts, indeed. Run expectancy tables derived from years of historic data confirm teams score more runs with a runner on first and nobody out than with a runner on second and one out. And on-base percentage — the statistic that measures how often a hitter uses up one of those precious 27 outs — was at the heart of the initial Moneyball movement.
Instead of Weaver, we have Ron Roenicke — Runnin’ Ron or Buntin’ Ron if you prefer.
Naturally, then, the statistically-minded (or saber-slanted, etc.) part of the Brewers fan population — obviously including myself and this blog, but extending through places like Brew Crew Ball and The Brewers Bar and some of the Brewers’ following on Twitter as well — has some issues with Roenicke’s strategies. So much so that we have sites like Ron Roenicke Stole My Baseball and the rather blunt Twitter account Fire Ron Roenicke. This Weaver-centric tweet from Brew Crew Ball’s Kyle Lobner stems from at the least some annoyance at Ron Roenicke’s bunting tendencies.
Tomorrow is Earl Weaver’s 82nd birthday. I propose a drinking game where we take a shot every time our favorite team wastes an out via bunt.
— Brew Crew Ball (@BrewCrewBall) August 13, 2012
But we should really ask the question: are Roenicke’s bunting ways really that different from Weaver’s?
It probably sounds like an absurd question if you’ve been watching the Brewers for the past two seasons. This club bunts often enough with its position players to create a meme, after all. Indeed, the bunts have come reasonably often — 54 times this season from hitters not in the ninth slot (so I may be missing a bunt or two from a PH or an interleague game, but I think it’s close enough for this exercise) entering play Monday night.
That’s pretty often — just under once every two games. Giving up one out for every 54 you get is basically throwing away The Extra 2% (1.85% rounds up, I figure).
But outs are inevitable even if your team isn’t explicitly trying to give them away. What makes those 27 outs so precious isn’t their mere possession, it’s being able to turn those outs into runs. Weaver understood sometimes the most efficient way to do that is to make sure you squeeze something out of an at-bat — maybe even just one extra base.
And to that end Weaver had his club’s non-pitchers attempt a sacrifice a whopping 73 times in 1970, the first season his Orioles won the World Series.
Mostly, it’s because neither Mark Belanger or Paul Blair were going to hit anyway. Belanger was an eight-time gold glove shortstop but he rarely showed life at the plate, finishing with a .228/.300/.280 (68 OPS+) career line over his 18-year career and he did not deviate in 1970. He managed just a .218/.303/.259 line, good for a -1.9 WPA and -12 runs of run expectancy. But his 20 bunt attempts? Four hits, nine successful sacrifices, twice reached on error, a +0.2 WPA and +1 run expectancy.
Blair was more of a hitter, himself an eight-time gold glover with a .250/.302/.382 (96 OPS+) career line, and he had one of his better years in 1970, notching a 114 OPS+. But he was also a runner, stealing 20 bases three times and 171 total for his career. Blair notched eight hits on his 17 bunt attempts with the help of that speed, good for a +0.2 WPA and a +2 run expectancy.
Overall, those 73 Oriole bunt attempts resulted in 19 hits, 10 runs scoring, a +0.4 WPA and +4 in run expectancy. Yes, the Orioles were giving away outs — 54 of them, to be precise — but they were turning those outs in to runs and wins. Particularly in Belanger’s case, the likely result was an unproductive out. In Blair’s case, he was so good at bunting that it was no longer giving away an out — the opposing defense had to earn it.
Context is king. Much like Weaver had most of his bunts come from either terrible hitters or speedsters who can handle the bat, the Brewers have done the same. Of Milwaukee’s 54 bunts, 37 have come from Nyjer Morgan, Cesar Izturis, Carlos Gomez or Norichika Aoki. As I mentioned Friday, the club has an even WPA this season and a +0.4 WPA last season on bunt attempts, with a slightly positive run expectancy on these plays.
The way Ron Roenicke talks about small ball and bunting and aggressive baserunning like the same old cliches as always, it’s easy to see where the backlash stems from. But it’s best to think of Weaver’s famous quote and the dogma of run expectancy tables as guidelines rather than rules. Outs are precious, and team have to use them as smartly as possible to bring runs home — even if that means dropping a sac bunt or two down over the course of 162 games.