The sacrifice bunt is overrated

Just got done checking out another article over at Girls Fastpitch Softball. This one was on the sacrifice bunt and how hitters aren’t being taught to bunt anymore.

Now, I like Dave over there, even if he does get a bit long-winded, and most of the time I agree with what he has to say. I even agree with a lot of this article — particularly on the need to develop the short game all the way up and down the lineup. But I do have to say I disagree with his evaluation of the sac bunt v. bunting for a hit.

Personally, I think it is one of the most over-rated and over-used tactics in softball. It causes you to lose something with not all that much advantage in long run. The thing you’re losing is an out.

If you’re playing for a 1-0 win, or even a 2-1 win, runs themselves aren’t really the key. Opportunities to score runs are the keys. And the currency of the game is outs. Just ask Billy Beane, or anyone who has really looked at the stats.

In a seven inning game, you have 21 outs to work with. No more, no less. If your first runner gets on base in all seven innings and you sac bunt her over in all seven innings, you’ve just given up 1/3 of your precious outs to move that runner to second — assuming you are successful each time. Statistically, you have now increased your chances of scoring that runner by 2%. (IIRC, the difference in scoring a runner from first with no outs v. a runner from second with one out is 43% v. 45%.) That seems like a bad trade to me.

Let’s break it down into one inning. You sac bunt that runner over to second, and now have two outs left to get her home. Unless she’s fast enough to steal third, somehow you have to advance her to third with a base hit or another bunt. There aren’t always a lot of base hits in softball, so you may have to bunt her over again, especially against a dominant pitcher. That’s two outs. All it takes is a strikeout, a popup, a weak ground ball, or a towering fly ball that gets caught to lose that chance. Even with the base hit, a strikeout and a pop-up kill your inning.

If you bunt for a hit, though, you can have runners on first and second with no outs. Now, a sac bunt can move both runners up and you have two chances to score at least one run. Even a ground ball to the infield could mean a run with only one out if you’re aggressive.

The key, of course, is being able to bunt for a hit. And that’s where I do agree with Dave. It seems like that ability to get the bunt down when it’s needed is being lost. A top-level player should be able to sit back until the last moment, get into position, and bunt the top of the ball to get it down. If she’s out she’s out, but at least she made the attempt to preserve that out and put her team into a better position.

One of the most interesting examples of a sac bunt backfiring came in the 2005 World Cup championship game. It was USA v Japan. The USA had runners on first and second with no one out. Stacey Nuveman, their best power hitter, came to the plate. Stacey was the DH because of an ankle or foot injury which limited her mobility.

Coach Candrea gave her the sac bunt sign to everyone’s surprise, and she fouled the first one off. The sign came in again and this time she executed it perfectly. The trouble was, the third baseman committed to fielding it early and practically caught the ball off her bat. She got the ball, wheeled and fired to the SS covering third to get the lead runner. The SS then fired across the diamond to first, where they easily doubled up the hobbling Nuveman. So with their best power hitter at the plate, USA went from runners at first and second with no outs to a runner at second with two outs. Not a very good exchange in my book.

Rather than “playing it safe” by having the hitter give herself up, I’d say put more emphasis on successfully executing the surprise bunt and give yourself the opportunity to save an out. You may find you need that out by the time the game is over.

About Ken Krause

Ken Krause has been coaching girls fastpitch softball for nearly 20 years. Some may know him as a contributing columnist to Softball Magazine, where he writes Krause's Korner -- a regular column sponsored by Louisville Slugger. Ken is also the Administrator of the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, the most popular fastpitch discussion forum on the Internet. He is currently a Three Star Master Coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), and is certified by both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and American Sports Education Program (ASEP). Ken is a private instructor specializing in pitchers, hitters, and catchers. He teaches at North Shore Baseball Academy in Libertyville, IL and Pro-Player Consultants in McHenry, IL.

Posted on April 11, 2007, in Hitting, Team offense. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Just found this blog recently. Love it, thanks for doing this.This topic is one that I have struggled a little bit with since my 9 y/o got more serious about softball this fall. As far as baseball goes, I’m usually in the sabremetric camp especially when it comes to outs, like you said in the post. Seems to me that, against a very good pitcher, the last thing you’d want to do is sac bunt. You’re already having a hard enough time not making outs against her.But softball is not baseball, and I understand many of the strategies are quite different. The question is, does the same fundamental concept of not making outs apply equally to both sports?Seems to me like it should, but I’m a newcomer to this world and don’t often know what I am talking about.

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  2. John, Different coaches have different philosophies so there’s no right or wrong answer per se. But I tend to be from the Sabremetrics school as well. There are a lot of different factors that go into it. Early in the game v. late in the game, your hitters v. their pitchers, etc. A big one is the ability to get the bunt down. The better your team bunts, the less you have to depend on the sacrifice bunt. I look at the game as being 21 outs — fewer if you’re playing in one of those tournaments with an hour and 15 minute time limit. I’d rather not just give up one of those outs for free if I can avoid it. It’s not that I’m anti-bunting. My team bunts a fair amount. Sometimes those bunts result in a hitter getting thrown out. But we’re not going to make it easy. The big difference between baseball and softball is the basepaths. They’re 60 feet in softball versus 90 feet in baseball. It’s tougher to throw out a baserunner going 60 feet v. 90 feet, so a surprise bunt is often more effective in softball than baseball. Sacrifice bunts tend to be used when the coach isn’t confident that the hitter can get the bunt down effectively without getting into position well before the pitch. In softball they’re also kind of a holdover from the days when the players weren’t as good as they are today. The skills of today’s players provide coaches with more options, again in my opinion. In MLB many hitters don’t put much practice into bunting. It’s not where the money is. Nobody wants to pay $30 a ticket and $4.50 a beer to watch a buntfest. So when called upon to advance a runner, they go with the sacrifice, which has a higher likelihood of working because there’s less going on immeditely prior to the bunt. Also because baseball is slow to change, and the “book” says with a runner on first and a bunt called you sacrifice. Teach your players to bunt proficiently and you’ll give up fewer outs. And with more outs you’ll score more runs. Ken

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  3. Hi John,Sorry I tried to reply yesterday but my own blog gave me problems! In any case, you bring up some good points.The bunt is a very important part of softball — probably more than baseball due to the shorter basepaths. It’s also been an important part of the game because softball has been so pitcher-dominated for so many years. Up until recently, baserunners were few, so if you got someone on base you wanted to advance her to second to give yourself a better chance of scoring her. Because of its importance coaches were willing to give up an out to do it. A lot of games ended 1-0 or 2-1.Today with better hitting techniques you don’t necessarily have to expend an out to do it. In fact, you may not want to so you can try to score more runs. I think it comes down to how proficient your team is at bunting. If they can bunt well, they can wait longer to show the bunt and try to get on base too. If not, you may have to use the sacrifice if you absolutely need to advance that runner. I’m a fan of Sabermetrices myself. I like the philosophy that outs are the currency of the game. You only get 21 in a regulation game — maybe only 15 in a game with an hour and fifteen minute time limit. Why waste them going for a run? You may wind up making an out anyway — third basemen in fastpitch softball are measured by their ability to cover the bunt — but you’ll be better off keeping the out for later if you can.Hope that clears it up. And thanks for weighing in.

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  4. Sweet, two replies for the price of one! :)I would like your opinion on what you like to do in a tight, low-scoring game where your team has struggled to hit the opposing pitcher. Like you said in your first reply, I know it depends on who’s holding the bat.I guess the real question is, at what point is it prudent to waste an out in order to get a runner 60 feet closer to home plate?

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  5. I would like to add a quick something about age specific bunting – I coached the 10Us last year for Mundelein. At an earlier age, like your daughter is still at, I like to give the girls as many opprotunities to hit as possible – plate appearances are few enough as it is and I want to develop hitters and a hitting mentality. I believe bunting is a technique that can be more easily taught than how to hit and can be taught as they get older – but you only get so many at-bats and I really tried to let the girls swing away as much as possible. I almost never had a girl bunt to advance a runner 60 ft – not at the 10U level. I definitely had the girls bunt more with a runner on 3rd – I loved that situation, especially for 10U who have a more difficult time fielding and throwing and seeing the next play before it happens. That being said, I still did not have my girls bunt enough – if I could go back in time, I would have them bunt more often. Not just to have them understand that bunting is part of the game, but because I hung-out some weaker batters out there against really good pitchers. When we went up against a good pitcher, I still often let them hit away and usually, the weaker hitters were walking back to the dugout hanging their head after a strikeout. A big part of my job is instilling confidence in the girls – and having them bunt, even if thrown out, gives them more confidence than a strikeout. So – at the young age – I don’t like bunting to advance a girl 60 ft – use the straight steal or delayed steal (very effective at 10U). I do recommend bunting girls home or for a girl who is out-matched against the pitcher.

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  6. John, I guess part of it depends on how well you’ve bunted against the opposing pitcher too. If you’re in a tight game, where one run could mean the difference, and you haven’t been able to get the bunt down with a surprise bunt, you’ll probably want to go with a sacrifice to be sure it gets down.The only problem is now you have a runner on second, 120 feet away, with one out. You have two chances to score her — but as you said you’ve been having trouble hitting this pitcher. If you get a ground out you might get the runner to third, but you still need a clean hit to score her. If you get a popup you still have a runner on third and need a better hit to score her. So you also have to look at your lineup. If the runner on base is your leadoff or #2 hitter, with 3, 4, and 5 behind her, your odds of scoring her are better than if the runner is #5 with 6,7, and 8 behind her. Complicated game, isn’t it?If I had the top of the lineup I might sacrifice and hope that one of my big hitters comes through. If I’m toward the bottom I’d probably be more likely to conserve the out, or at least not give it up freely. I might also give my hitter one strike to swing away, and then move into the bunt. I actually did that this fall. We were in a tournament after a long layoff and we just weren’t hitting too well. After giving up a lead to fall behind by two runs we were struggling at the plate. My leadoff hitter got on, and the #2 got a strike on her. I saw the infield playing deep so we did a surprise bunt up the first base line. Both runners were safe, and it created a lot more pressure on the defense. We went on to score four runs that inning, mixing hits and bunts to keep the defense off balance. None of the bunts were straight out sacrifices. I don’t think the bunt was first choice with any of the hitters, but we went to it after a strike.Long story short, it’s all pretty situational. It depends on where the defense is playing, where you are in the lineup, and how well the hitter can bunt. Also how fast the baserunner is. If you really believe that one run will make the game, and that you can score the run from second, then the straight sacrifice makes sense. The weaker the bunter, the more it makes sense in my opinion. But if you’re not sure you can score the runner from second, I wouldn’t waste one more opportunity. Chances of scoring from second with one out (according to stats from MLB) is 47%, while scoring from first with no outs is 45%. Or something like that. Is it worth giving up an out late in the game to gain a 2% advantage?

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  7. Mike,Thanks for the reply. Glad you took the concept and applied it to 10U play, that was very helpful

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