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April 22, 2016

Pebble Hunting

Which Bunts Are Missing?

by Sam Miller

Here’s a very brief history of the sacrifice bunt: From around 1960 through around 1981, teams bunted around .45 times per game. There was such a powerful instinct guiding managers to this number that even the introduction of the DH didn’t budge it. In 1982, sacrifices dropped under .4/game for the first time, but hung in around .38 or so until the end of the century. Since then, bunts have been steadily dropping, at the rate of just under one-hundredth of a bunt per game per year. Put another way, a decline of around 3 percent per game per year. Last year, there were .25 bunts per game.

This year, there are .15. A thousand players, two and a half dozen managers and scores of front office decision-makers apparently went home for the winter and, like birds and ants and bacteria and fish, somehow just knew that this was what they were all going to be not doing anymore. Baseball’s emergence. The sacrifice bunt died a quiet death in the offseason.

This is so weird—not that bunts are down, because bunts have been going down, for obvious and visible reasons, but that so much changed just since last September. Either it’s an early-season fluke or it demands we wrap our heads around it. To do the latter, we should know which bunts are lost.

I’m going to be comparing this year to 1975, the sac-bunting peak of the DH era; and also 1998, which saw the exact midpoint between the 1975 sac rate and the 2015 rate; and 2015. So then, let’s go through a typical game and see where we’re losing our bunts from this earlier era.

Opportunity 1: Your leadoff hitter doubles, and/or singles and steals a bag. It’s the first inning. The game is young, just like Leif Garrett, the star of the fall’s biggest debut drama, Three for the Road. Do you:

  • Bunt?
  • Not bunt?

If you’re playing from 1975, you bunt. In 1975, there were 8.5 bunts for every 1,000 plate appearances in the first inning. In 1998, that figure had dropped to 4.1. Last year, it was 2.6 per 1,000. And this year, oh sweet this year, it’s 0.6. The “gotta score first” mentality is, at least as far as bunting is concerned, at the end of a long trend toward endangerment, and very suddenly extinct. Arguably, this is not totally disconnected from the rise in the Actually Good No. 2 Hitter.

Long-term trend, short-term trend, or samesies? Long- and Short-.

Opportunity 2: It’s the third inning. After stranding your leadoff man on second in the first—did you bunt? Maybe you should have bunted!—your lineup went three-up, three down in the second. But when your no. 8 hitter got plunked to lead off the third, he’s sitting on first base with nobody out, like some sort of pet rock that just got invented, marketed and somehow sold to 1.5 million people. Your pitcher is batting. Do you:

  • Bunt?
  • Not bunt?

If you’re playing from 1975, you bunt. But if you’re playing in 2016, you still bunt, basically. The rate of bunts from pitchers is more or less unchanged. Back in the ‘70s, 8.7 percent of pitchers’ plate appearances ended in sacrifice. By 1998, the number was actually up, to 10.0 percent, and last year it was 9.1 percent. Pitchers hit worse than ever, so that might explain the small uptick. Anyway, this year’s numbers are back down slightly, to 7.0 percent of pitchers’ plate appearances, which contributes slightly to our decrease, but only slightly—and the least convincingly “trendy” part of it.

Long-term trend, short-term trend, or samesies? Samesies.

Opportunity 3: It’s the fifth inning, and your no. 5 hitter doubles to lead off the inning of a tie game. The guy coming up has got a lot of power, just like new Spanish king Juan Carlos. However, it’s the bottom of the order after him. Do you:

  • Bunt?
  • Not bunt?

If you’re playing in 1975, your only regret is that you can’t send up an even better hitter to sacrifice than the one who is due up. An incomplete list of hitters who laid down a sacrifice in just the first 11 days of that season:

This is all anecdotal, but here’s the best list of good hitters I can produce for the first 11 games of 1998:

And 2015:

And this year:

Carpenter, Lindor, and Dozier are outliers there. Otherwise, there’s virtually no example of a powerful hitter being asked to bunt this year. Wasn’t always that way!

Long-term trend, short-term trend, or samesies? Long-term.

Opportunity 4: Your no. 6 hitter strikes out. Now the no. 7 hitter’s up, and let me tell you, that guy can’t even buy an RBI, not unlike the contestants of the new game show Wheel Of Fortune, in which only vowels are for sale. Do you:

  • Bunt?
  • Not bunt?

You don’t bunt. Only 21 percent of bunts this year have come with one out, almost exactly the portion of such bunts in 2015 (24 percent) and 1998 (22 percent) and more than the rate in 1975 (17 percent*). The rate of one-out bunts is unchanged, but that’s basically because even in the 1970s managers didn’t bunt with one out unless it was the pitcher. So there you go: We found a time that a 1975 manager wouldn’t bunt.

Long-term trend, short-term trend, or samesies? Samesies.

Opportunity 5: It’s the sixth inning, and the game is still scoreless heading to the bottom half. Your leadoff man singles again, and (like the nation's bicentennial) the pitcher is coming up. Do you:

  • Bunt?
  • Not bunt?

In 1975, you bunt. In 1998, you bunt. In 2015 and 2016—you pull the pitcher. The average pitcher playing under NL rules batted 2.79 times per game in ’75, 2.47 times in ’98, 2.22 last year and just 2.19 this year. So while we established earlier that pitchers bunt just as frequently as ever, they actually bunt quite a bit less frequently than they used to. Just depends how you phrase the question.

Long-term trend, short-term trend, or samesies? Long-term.

Opportunity 6: It’s the ninth inning. The game is close. Sooooo close. Time for the manager to shine. You’ve got runners on first and… whatever, details don’t matter. It’s close, and in a close game you’ve got to put pressure on the opposition and eventually they’ll crack, like fallen chess champion Bobby Fischer. Do you:

  • Bunt?
  • Not bunt?

Here we see perhaps the biggest change. In 1975, the late innings were the fertilest bunting grounds. From the seventh inning on, there were 16 bunts for every 1,000 plate appearances in 1975; in the ninth inning, there were 13. But those figures have been steadily declining, and have collapsed this year:

1975 1998 2015 2016
7+ 16.2 10.9 6.6 3.1
9 13.3 9.6 5.2 0.8

The ninth inning in particular is pretty sturdily out of the realm of pitchers batting, and so we can say this change isn’t fueled by questions of who is batting, but what strategy managers are choosing. And it, as much as anything else I found, accelerated this year. Early-season SSS caveat. This might revert. But the change is pretty big, and it fits a theme. This seems to be a way that baseball is different this year.

Long-term trend, short-term trend, or samesies? Long-term and short-term, and maybe especially short-term.

So now we know where the bunts went: Pitchers are batting less than ever, the tier of hitter called upon to bunt has dropped dramatically, the once-common first inning strategy of get-‘em-over/get-‘em-in seems to have fallen way out of favor; and the late innings are no longer smallballtime. If you miss ‘em, and you want to write a letter complaining to your manager for hoarding all his outs, now you know the specifics.

*I know, different denominators. Point is, there's not much difference.

Ben Lindbergh made the chart that's in one of those links up there.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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