More on the sacrifice bunt
My pal Rich sent me some information today that further confirms what I said earlier — the sacrifice bunt is way over-used relative to its value.
Here’s a link to an incredible article that really breaks down the chances of scoring with various numbers of baserunners with 0,1, or 2 outs. This is not some guy offering his opinion on the way things should be. It’s an academic type performing a statistical analysis that Billy Beane would be proud of. Be warned — the article (or more accurately academic paper) is long and very mathematical. But it certainly reinforces the points I and others made before.
The basis for this paper is the analysis of the actual outcomes of at bats in Major League Baseball. It talks about how many runs are scored per inning on average in each of the situations. More than that, though, it also breaks it down by who is hitting, i.e. where in the lineup you are. The numbers are a little different for an 8 hitter than a 3 hitter, so this takes it into account. It also accounts for the DH in the American League v. having the pitcher hit in the National.
Let’s take a look at a classic scenario. The leadoff hitter gets on base, and the #2 hitter in the lineup bunts him to second. If you do that all the time, the probability of scoring at least one run is .439. If you leave the runner on first and have the #2 hitter swing away, the probability of scoring is .483. So you’ve actually hurt your chances of scoring by giving up that out to advance the runner.
Ok, that’s the top of the lineup. Let’s look at the #7 hitter getting on and the #8 hitter at bat. In that case, the probability of scoring from second with one out is .379, while the probability of scoring from first with no outs is .393. Hmmm. So why are we bunting again?
Where the sacrifice bunt does seem to make sense is with no outs and a runner on second. But it seems like a lot of softball coaches never give themselves the chance to get in that situation. They knee-jerk bunt as soon as a runner gets on first and regardless of whether a weak or strong hitter is at the plate. They take themselves out of more innings than they create opportunities.
Now I’m sure there are some who will say softball is not baseball, the bases are shorter, the pitcher is closer, blah blah blah. That argument may have been valid 15 years ago, but it’s not anymore. Today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and better trained. Third basemen in particular make their bones by fielding the bunt and making the play, often times getting the lead runner. Hitters put in more work than they used to, and have bats that are a lot hotter than they used to be too. There is a much greater chance that they’ll put the ball in play and get a big inning started. One check of the local newspapers for high school games or the NCAA Web site will show you that the days of 1-0 15 inning nail biters are long past. Offense is all the rage, and those who can’t generate it by swinging the bats are doomed to wind up on the short end of the stick.
As Mike Hanscom pointed out before it’s a little different at the younger ages. But even there, better teams are starting to play the bunt better. You don’t see as many balls thrown away or as many runners reaching base safely as you used to. The expectations are higher.
Does all this mean you should never bunt? No! When the defense is playing back, or you know you’re playing for one run, or the defense has shown it’s a little sloppy on the bunt you should take advantage of it. It’s still a good weapon. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of fastpitch offense, and it shouldn’t be an automatic. If you’ve trained your hitters to hit then let them do their jobs. In most cases you’ll increase your probability of scoring. Not because I say so, but because the numbers don’t lie.
There is another strategic piece to this equation. With a runner on 1 and no outs, your opponent most likely will expect the bunt. Imagine the havoc caused by a mighty swing. The unexpected.