More evidence that the sacrifice bunt is a waste

Watch any fastpitch softball game — travel ball, high school, even college — and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see this scenario play out

First batter up gets on base — gets a hit, walks, reaches on error, hit by pitch, whatever. So what happens next? The coach in the third base box throws some signals, and the hitter promptly tries to sacrifice her over to second. The thought, of course, is that by moving the runner up 60 feet the team will have a better chance of scoring a run. And one run could be the difference between winning and losing.

The trouble is there are a few flaws in that thinking. One is that it’s not 1987 anymore. Between more players taking hitting lessons, the pitching rubber being moved back to 43 feet in most levels of play, and bat technology that can turn a checked swing into a double, the 1-0 or 2-1 game is pretty much a rarity.

But even if it were, as I’ve written before here and here, the facts don’t bear out the strategy. Instead of looking hopefully at the idea of moving a runner into scoring position, we need to look at actual outcomes — in other words check the facts instead of the assumptions.

I haven’t been able to find any stats specific to fastpitch softball, but I did a great chart that looks out the outcomes in Major League Baseball going all the way back to 1950. Take all the emotion out of it and just look at what happens in different situations.

Let’s take a look at our scenario again. Looking at the stats for 1993-2010, with a runner on first and no one out, MLB teams scored .941 runs from that point to the end of the inning. If you sacrifice the runner to second, which means you have a runner on second with one out, MLB teams scored .721 runs. In other words, by moving that runner up a base by giving up an out, you’re likely to to score .220 fewer runs.

Now take a look at the second chart, which shows the chances that any runs will score in an inning in different situations. With our runner on first and no outs, there’s a .441 chance a run will score. By moving that runner to second with a sacrifice bunt, you now have a .418 chance of scoring a run in the inning. Again, by making that move your chances of scoring have decreased by .033.

That’s not speculation. That’s science. The numbers don’t lie.

If you’re one of those who automatically goes to the sac bunt when you get a runner on base, maybe it’s time to re-think that strategy. Unless you’re playing my team. In that case, by all means please feel free to give up an out every time you get a runner on first. I’ll be sure to say thank you later.

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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 September 1, 2012, in Hitting. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Couldn’t agree more. My DD currently bats 2 and has a .650 OBP over .500 BA and gets sac’d all the time and the leadoff girl is fast and guaranteed to get to 2 every time anyway. Sooo frustrating.

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  2. Boy, it sounds like that coach is making a huge mistake to me. With a .650 OBP it sounds like that lead runner could be getting to second or third if he/she would let your daughter swing away. If she couldn’t hit a lick, and was going to make an out anyway, a sac bunt might make sense. But I can tell you I’d want her swinging the bat!

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  3. Just got back from 1st practice from Xmas. Was told moving to lead-off. DD plays for a top 14U in FL and was new to team. She is small and very fast, every coach has bunted her at first, then realizes she hits too good to waste a bunt on. She is an amazing bunter from right side but gets extra base hits regularly when left alone to swing. I would like to see her gain power. Although her BA is always well above the big girls I often think to leave her alone. Maybe I could video her swing and let me know what you can add.

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  4. Sure, I’d be happy to take a look. Being able to both bunt with speed and hit for power is a great weapon. Makes it tough for defenses to know how to play her. Do they play up to take away the surprise bunt (which I am a fan of, as opposed to the sac bunt), or do they play back to take away the hit? It would be nice if your coach would give her some leeway to evaluate the defense and make a decision based on what they’re giving away. I do that with hitters who have those options. If I don’t call for something specific, they are free to bunt if it’s there, or swing away if it’s there. Hopefully the move to leadoff will give your daughter more opportunity to swing away!

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  5. We practice tomorrow night and I’ll video some soft toss. She’s always been a lead off hitter it just took me a while to convince the coach to make the change. He’s a very dominate guy. I want her to have a green light to hit away or lay it down: that’s my next objective. Defenses are careful to come in too much because they find out fast she can hit.On a coaching matter I’d like your opinion. This coach, coaches the girls at all times. Especially while they’re at bat. Shouting commands from third, such as hit down on the ball, nothing over your hands, etc. He does it with every hitter every at bat all game every game. Most other coaches at this level seem pretty quiet, letting the girls play. What are your thoughts.

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  6. It’s pretty well-established that giving technical instructions during a game is pretty much counter-productive. I’m guessing the coach doesn’t have a lot of experience. It’s kind of a rookie mistake we all make. What you want to do is provide encouragement, or simple reminders such as “hit it hard” (for hitting, obviously) or “rock and fire” for pitchers. Giving technical advice during the game just clutters their heads and gives them too much to think about. The time to provide instruction is during practice. In a game, step aside and let them play.

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  7. Seems your stats come from the steroid era on a much different game than fastpitch. I think that moving a runner is an important part of the game but not a necessity on every occassion. I would never have one of my top hitters sacrificing even if it was an ITB game but I would have an average or below average girl sac bunting 100% of the time in this scenario. Really good fastpitch softball is still dominated by the pitcher – if you don’t believe me, catch a WCWS game this June and tell me I am wrong.It is critical to learn how to move runners and execute in critical situations in the game. Nothing drives a coach more crazy than when a good player can’t get a sac bunt down.

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  8. Actually, AJ, if you look at the blog post again you’ll see the stats go all the way back to 1950 – meaning the steroid era only made a small contribution to the overall total. You’re right – there are times when you want to move the runner, or play for one run. But that’s usually late in the game when your team hasn’t been hitting. As far as the game being dominated by pitchers, it’s not nearly as much as it used to be. Back a dozen or so years ago it wasn’t unusual for games to end 1-0 or 2-1. But take a look at scores these days. The other night I watched Tulsa beat CFU 8-1. You see a lot more high-scoring games than ever before. Even in the WCWS you see more high scores. Look at the championship games in 2012 between Oklahoma and Alabama. The scores were 4-1, 8-6 and 5-4. You can’t get there sacrifice bunting every time you get a runner on first. There is a guy currently running Sabermetric stats on NCAA Div 1 softball. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack up in terms of percentages on plays.

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  9. Hi! Intrigued by this article. I was wondering if there is any way to convert these stats for fastpitch softball? Noticing the stark differences between pro baseball and fastpitch softball at any level. Smaller field, women, different pitching, different spins. Would be interested to know about the success of bunting and the potential for scoring runs as a result of bunting in a fastpitch softball specific setting.

    Surely, girls have gotten stronger and can hit the ball further, but they’re definitely faster too!

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  10. Those stats already exist, CV. Check out this article from Fastpitch Analytics: http://fastpitchanalytics.com/2014/08/14/run-expectancy-using-2014-play-by-play-data/ They took a look at a D1 college softball for a season and ran the same sort of analysis. And came away with the same conclusion, i.e., you will score more runs with a runner on first and no outs than a runner on second and one out, over the long run.

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