Bunts, outs and strategy

Of all the offensive strategies in the game of fastpitch softball, none is more time-honored than using the bunt as a means of advancing a runner into scoring position. In fact, you could say that offensive strategy #1 goes like this: get your leadoff hitter on base, then have the next hitter sacrifice bunt her over to second.
 
That’s the way it’s always been. And for many that’s the way it continues to be. Yet there is a question as to whether it really makes sense to automatically lay down the bunt when you get a runner on base with no outs, no matter the quality of the opposing team or where you are in the lineup. 

Major League Baseball once did a study on the chances of scoring a runner from first base with no outs v. from second base with one out. It came from the study of 50 years worth of statistics. (MLB and the people who follow it intensely love to make with the stats.) According to Cindy Bristow’s must-have book Softball Strategies, Coverages, Signals & Charts, the chances of a runner scoring from first with no outs are 43%. The chances of scoring that same runner from second with one out are 45%. Is it really worth giving up an out automatically to increase your chances of scoring by 2%? It’s a good strategy sometimes — like when you’re in a tight, low-scoring game where you need to play for one run, when your team’s hitters are being dominated by the other team’s pitcher, or  you’re in the part of your lineup where rallies go to die.

But it may not be such a good idea when you’re early in the game and you know you can hit the opponent’s pitcher. Why not play for a big inning by letting hitter #2 swing away? She may advance the runner a lot further than second, and you still have all three outs left to try to get her home. Even if she only gets to second, the chances of scoring go up to 60% with no outs. If she makes it to third, you stand a 70% chance of getting her in. I’d say 70% looks a lot better than 45% — and 60 feet away looks better than 120 feet. After all, from third all you need is a wild pitch to score.

I’ve even seen some teams waste two outs trying to bunt a runner to third. Let’s look at the stats there. Again, with a runner on first and no outs your chances of scoring that runner are 43%. If you expend an out to bunt her to second and then another to bunt her to third, your situation is two outs and a runner on third. Your chances of scoring now have actually gone down. Statistically, you have a 32% chance of scoring — 11% less than when you started. How does that make sense? Unless your team is so horrible at swinging the bat that they have no chance of putting the ball in play, you are better off trying to hit that runner around and in.

If you follow softball 101 and bunt her to second, you’re still better off swinging the bat and using a hit to advance her to third. The chances of scoring a runner from third with one out are 54%. That’s a slight advantage over the “house” for you gamblers. Does it really make sense to give up 22% to get that runner to third? I don’t think so. Half of 54% is 27%, so you’re basically cutting your chances of scoring almost in half by sac bunting the runner to third. Who in their right minds wants to cut their chances of scoring in half? Yes, you might get lucky with a wild pitch now and then. But the higher a level you play, the less likely you are to get that luck. In the meantime, you’ve given up a lot of outs — and potential runs — for no reason.

Bunting is a great technique for advancing runners when used intelligently. I’ve done it myself lots of times. But it can also be a liability. Do the math. Make your bunts more strategic and you’ll generate a lot more offense.

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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, 2008, in Coaching, Hitting, Team offense. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Curious. Are the quoted percentages based on the MLB where the level of defensive play is very near perfect? Given the wildness of a charging U14B 3rd basemen, I would guess the percentages would be different. The question is by how much.Memo to ASA – How about commissioning this same study for high school fastpitch?

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  2. Interesting stats. I have never been a big fan of bunting someone over to second as a rule to increase odds, though I have been a fan to bunt someone to third to increase odds when there are 0 outs. I feel like there is more opportunity for the infield hit or outfield fly ball to score someone and that risk is worth taking when the bats are quiet. If the batter is a weak hitter, then I don’t mind doing it in either case because if you are likely to get an out, you might as well advance the runner doing so. Where did you get those stats and how can I go about getting them? Sounds like some fun reading.

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  3. Greg, yes the stats are from MLB. I don’t know what the stats are at various softball levels but it’s probably not substantially different. Even at the 14U B level third basemen are usually fairly competent at fielding the bunt. Or at least as competent as hitters are at putting it down. Remember, if your hitter doesn’t get the bunt down in two shots you’ve really put her in a hole. Mike, I would agree that I’d rather get the runner on third with one out rather than two. Much better chance of scoring. The difference, of course, is a decent fly ball with one out scores a run. The same fly ball with two outs creates a new half inning. But that also relies on your hitters being able to hit a fly ball. As always, it depends not only on the book situation but also your team’s specific talent. Sometimes you need a good bunt just to get things going. The stats came out of Cindy Bristow’s book, which I have linked to in the post.

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  4. Ken, I think you may have missed another less obvious aspect of the over bunting thing. Aside from what the stats say about scoring runners from different bases with different number of outs which is easily measurable, by forcing your hitters to bunt all of the time you are robbing them of the fun of hitting, instilling in them your lack of confidence in their ability (whether it is a real lack of confidence or simply perceived on the hitters part) and thereby lowering their confidence in themselves, and ultimately making them poorer hitters and reducing your offensive output by a magnitude that is immeasurable, but not to say inconsequential. The stats also don’t take into account the success rate of putting down the bunt. It simply assumes a successful bunt. How many times do you end up with your hitter 0-2 and now the hitter has only one swing to work with, greatly increasing the probability of ending up with a runner on 1st and one out. I would just like to be clear, I feel that bunting is an important part of the game but must be used in the right situations. Not every situation with a runner on 1st and no outs or a runner on 2nd and none or one out is the same. In general I would say to bunt when 1) you will be satisfied with scoring one run and the hitter you have up is a significantly poorer hitter than the hitter(s) to follow or 2) the hitter that is up cannot hit a lick (like some major league pitchers). If you watch MLB closely you will rarely to never see the 3-4-5 hitters bunt. Why? Well, what better situation does a manager want to see himself in than with runners already on base and the hitters coming up, that he must have felt in the first place by putting them in that spot in the lineup, are your best run producers.

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  5. Great points Neal. I would like to expound on your point #2 above. I coached a 10U team this last year, and I have realize I made a mistake throughout the year. I was dead-set on turning all of my girls into hitters and tried to give them every opportunity I could. Which means we didn’t bunt a whole lot – mostly just in the cases that covered point #1 you mentioned. Confidence is a huge factor in this game and I have realized I didn’t give the girls confidence just by telling them to swing away. I needed to better judge who and when to tell to swing away. The girls I am speaking of are those that struggle with hitting more than the others, and at the moment, are over-matched by a much better pitcher. There were way too many times I let them swing away knowing (or at least pretty darned sure) that the girl would be walking back to the bench with her head hanging after the K. Even if there weren’t girls on base, I should have told them to bunt more. If they got on, then they feel great and at 10U, alot of errors happen which increases their chances of getting on. If they get out, I can put that blame on me and by telling the girl the defense made a great play, or I had them bunt to tire out the pitcher for the later innings… There are many ways I could have deflected the girls concerns about getting out. When a girl strikes out though, that is pretty much on her and hard to deflect – all you can try to do is give her words of encouragement for the next at-bat. Obviously, if they weren’t out matched or you have a stronger hitter up, you let them swing away. Another positive about having weaker hitters bunt when they are over-matched with a stronger pitcher, is that if other teammates see girls hitting the ball, albeit via bunts, they start to get it in their head the pitcher is hittable which is the opposite with Ks.

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