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June 15, 2004

Prospectus Today

Amateur Hour

by Joe Sheehan

On Sunday, I was watching the Long Beach State/Arizona game, eventually won by the Wildcats in 11 innings. There were a couple of things that popped up in the 11th, during Arizona's game-winning rally, that I wanted to examine.

The bottom of the inning began with Long Beach third baseman Danny Mocny making a terrible throw on a ground ball by UA's Moises Duran. The error put Duran on second base with no one out. Wildcats' shortstop Jason Donald came up and immediately showed bunt.

Now, this is a situation we see all the time in MLB. A team gets the game-winning run to second base with no one out, and tries to bunt him over to third. I'm not questioning that tactic; as James Click's recent series on sacrificing showed, that's a viable use of the bunt, even if everyone east of Belmont Shore knew it was coming. My problem is with what Long Beach State didn't do.

We know that teams will often walk at least one, and often two, batters with a runner on third and less than two outs. (The Dirtbags would eventually issue one intentional pass.) If you're going to do that anyway, why wouldn't you just walk the first batter to make it first and second with no one out, giving you the force play at third base and the potential for a double play on the bunt? If moving the runner from second base to third base, is that important, than keeping the runner from making that advantage would seem to be worth putting on an additional baserunner.

I don't think I've ever seen this done, but it seems to me to make a lot more sense than the current approach of trying to make the tag play at third base, then proceeding with the inning from there. I have no numbers on the difference in probability of making a tag play versus a force play at third base, but it wouldn't have to be very big to make a difference. A team has a 63.5% chance of scoring one run with a runner on second and no one out. Put an additional runner on first, and that jumps all the way to…64.4%. (A successful sacrifice with a runner on second and no one out gives a team an 69.3% chance to score; with an extra runner on board, the chance is virtually the same, 68.9%.)

Gaining the force at third base is worth the cost in almost any situation in which you're not bringing up a great hitter. Even in some cases in which you are it might make sense. The quickest route out of the inning is the double play, and if a team is going to eschew the bunt and swing away with the next hitter, you might be better off rolling the dice on facing him. I'm thinking here primarily of the class of great hitters also prone to hitting into double plays, the Mike Piazzas of the world.

Teams should implement this tactic, because as far as I can tell, it's the best way for them to escape the inning with no runs being scored.

As it turns out, Wildcats' shortstop Jason Donald came up and failed to get a bunt down, striking out for the first out. Watching him try and lay down a sacrifice brought up another idea. Why wouldn't college teams keep a wood bat around for this situation? Perhaps this is my preference for wood talking, but I remember in being a lot easier to bunt with wood, easier to deaden the ball and keep it in fair territory.

Going to the plate with a wood bat would telegraph the batter's intention, but then again, so does squaring around while the pitcher is in the set position. There's nothing being given away, and the edge you get in using the wood bat to bunt should be worth it.

(It occurs to me that wood might be against the rules in college. If it is, it's a dumb rule, but it obviously would make the last couple of paragraphs moot.)

The entire bunt sequence was rendered moot when, with Richard Mercado at the plate, a wild pitch advanced Duran to third base. Mercado was walked, and Nick Hundley lifted a fly ball to center that scored the run that sent the Wildcats to Omaha.

Maybe doing things differently wouldn't have mattered in the end. I do think it's interesting to examine these situations and look for not just a good way to play them, but the best way. These differences of hundredths of a run seem silly, but trying to win baseball games is a constant attempt to gain small edges. "Sabermetrics" is, in part, finding where those edges lay and taking them.

--

A couple of months ago, I mentioned "The Scouting Report by the Fans, for the Fans," a project implemented by the stathead known as Tangotiger. The results are in, and you can read about it at his Web site. There's some interesting stuff there, but I think the project needs more data to gain ground, so check in and see how you can participate.

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

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