There are times in baseball games when a bunt makes sense. When a team needs one run to tie a game, when a poor hitter is up to the plate. In these situations, a successful bunt almost surely increases a team’s chances to win, and definitely increases their chances to tie. This was exactly the situation presented to the Brewers in Tuesday night’s game against the Cardinals: bottom of the ninth, trailing 2-1 nobody out, runners on first and second, and Yuniesky Betancourt at the plate.
Sometimes, these situations are all too obvious. The Cardinals had the bunt well sniffed out even on the first pitch, which Betancourt fouled off, and they would certainly be ready for a second attempt on an 0-1 count. The incredible obviousness of the bunt in this situation allowed the Cardinals to run a bunt defense called the Wheel. If you watched Tuesday’s game, you’ve already seen it, but here’s a handy diagram, to refresh:
Click to embiggen.
Following the arrows, we can see why this play is called the wheel. With both corners charging, there should, ideally, be a play at third base, with one of the corner infielders able to field the ball cleanly — ideally the first baseman, given his angle to the base, as we saw with Pujols. The middle infielders forego covering second base, with the shortstop breaking to third on the pitch. The second baseman covers first, as on many defensive bunt coverages.
This break by the shortstop is where the risk of this play comes in. If the batter fakes a bunt and pulls back to slash, the entire middle of the infield is open to a base hit. If the shortstop breaks too late, with the third baseman charging, third base is left wide open for a steal opportunity. If the shortstop breaks too early, nobody will be there to hold the runner to second base, allowing him to get a massive lead, with potential for a stolen base or for him to beat the throw on a bunt.
So why couldn’t the Brewers beat the wheel, despite the fact that it’s a very vulnerable play? Because they played directly into the Cardinals’ hands. With Prince Fielder and Casey McGehee on base, the Cardinals knew that even if the shortstop were to break too early or too late, there was no risk for stolen bases. The Cardinals could then go for broke on the attempt to get the out at third — again, also made much easier with the slow Fielder running. Throw in the fact that Yuniesky Betancourt is not an experienced bunter — he didn’t even know to keep his fingers off the front of the bat — and it should be no surprise the Brewers’ attempt to bunt the runners over was thwarted.
This brings into focus a key consideration for any manager or coach calling for a bunt. The game theory of bunting is remarkably important when it comes to making these decisions. The times when the bunt is most obvious are apparent to both the offense and the defense. Where a bunt may help the team most is also the time the defense will play more for the bunt, meaning the chances of failure are highest. Conversely, the time a bunt seems least helpful — say, Ryan Braun batting with nobody on base — can lead to bunts falling in for hit at an extremely high rate. So while in a vacuum, Ron Roenicke’s decision to have Yuniesky Betancourt bunt in the ninth inning of Tuesday’s game makes sense, it doesn’t work when the defense is so obviously playing just to field said bunt.
Sometimes you play the game, and sometimes the game plays you. On Tuesday night, the game played Ron Roenicke.