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October 8, 2013

Baseball Therapy

What My Four-Year-Old Taught Me About Bunting

by Russell A. Carleton


My daughter completely schooled me this week. In the 2013 Baseball Prospectus Annual, I talked about how she, at the tender age of three, was a better sabermetrician than I, because she’s much more experimental about life than I am. She turned four a few months ago, so she’s not really young for her level any more, but she’s still better at this than I am. Last week, my wife and I were in the kitchen and my daughter was busily drawing a picture of… something. My wife mentioned that one of her friends had made a bunting (the kind that a baby wears) for her infant daughter. My daughter asked what a bunting was and my wife explained. As an afterthought, I tacked on, “and it’s a bad strategic play in baseball.” My daughter stopped drawing, looked over at me, and asked her favorite question, “Why?”

Now, I briefly entertained the thought of explaining a run expectancy matrix to her, but had to settle for “Daddy’s just being silly.” That’ll do for now, but some day, when she gets older, she too will be tempted to call for a sacrifice bunt at a key moment in an important game. What will I say to her then? I need to be ready.

It’s a question that I haven’t really asked in a while. It’s something of an article of faith among sabermetricians that sacrifice bunts are a bad idea, and I assumed that when I had a little time to play around with some numbers, I would confirm what I already knew, that bunting is mostly a bad strategy because it costs a team runs.

In fairness, we already know that there are situations where bunting is actually a good idea. In The Book, author Mitchel Lichtman makes the case that completely abandoning the bunt won’t work, because there’s a game theory aspect to it. Dropping one down once in a while keeps the defense honest. If they know that a bunt isn’t coming, they can play back with impunity. In 2004, James Click suggested that a bunt makes sense for really bad hitters (read: pitchers), or in very specific situations, such as a tie game, when a team needs one run and can forgo a multi-run inning (his work is summarized in a chapter of Baseball Between the Numbers).

The standard argument against bunting has been that according to the run expectancy matrix, having a runner on first with no outs actually leads to more runs, on average, than does a runner on second with one out. And getting the runner to second with one out is supposed to be the point. In 2013, a team with a runner on first and no outs could expect 0.826 runs in the rest of the inning, while a runner on second with one out had an expected value of 0.637 runs. Advancing the runner is a good thing, but the out is clearly more valuable. Why intentionally waste one?

Both Lichtman and Click point out that one nice thing about a bunt is that sometimes it produces more than just the standard “batter out, runner to second.” Sometimes the batter gets a hit. Sometimes the fielding team throws the ball into right field. There are lots of things that can happen once the third base coach puts his right arm in and then takes his right arm out and then shakes it all about. I think that was the bunt sign. But of course, both Lichtman’s and Click’s works are approaching their 10th birthday. Maybe it’s time for a fresh look at the subject.

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Related Content:  Sabermetrics,  Bunting,  Tactics

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