November 15, 2013
Painting the Black
Suicide is Painless
"I don't believe it! They've lost their minds down there! They're trying to kill me. They're doing it on purpose." —Don the Tigers fan reacting to a failed squeeze play, from Five Seasons
The squeeze play is perhaps baseball's most exciting display of managerial greed, complete with an unparalleled do-or-dumb element. Good execution can guarantee a run just as sure as incompetence can botch an otherwise rosy situation. It's a play that lends itself to criticism and second guessing. Yet, despite those stakes, one manager has embraced the squeeze as a primary weapon in recent years.
Ron Roenicke got his creativity honestly, having served on Mike Scioscia's Angels staff alongside fellow managers Joe Maddon and Bud Black. He took over the Brewers in November 2010, and has since employed an aggressive approach by embracing squeeze plays. The Brewers have averaged 15 bunt attempts with a baserunner on third since 2011, including 21 tries in 2012—the third most by a team since 1980, trailing only the 1989 Cubs and 1986 Giants. Predictably, the Brew Crew lead the league in the category during Roenicke's reign:
Most Bunt Attempts with Runner on Third, 2011-2013
Obviously, using the squeeze play often isn't the same as using it wisely. To investigate whether Roenicke is judicious with the squeeze, let's examine how he used it last season.
Before getting to the data, a few words about the methodology used. Each bunt was viewed and classified by the bunt type, either safety or suicide. If the baserunner headed toward the plate before the ball was bunted, then it went in the books as a suicide. Otherwise, it was labeled a safety. The run expectancy at the time of the bunt was used along with the run-expectancy changes from a success (defined here as the run scoring and an out being made at first base) and failure* (defined as no run scoring and an out being made at the plate) to generate a break-even point. The runs scored on the play, but not before or afterward, are also included in the table below:
Brewers Squeeze Log, 2013
*On plays with two outs, there were no outs assumed.
The Brewers scored at least one run on 77 percent of their tries, with the median break-even point being 80 percent. Labeling each decision as smart or silly depends on more than the factors presented above, however, as the quality of bunter, pitcher, defense, and baserunner matter, too—as does the score. Likewise, the failures don't include a catastrophic outcome—a double-play pop-up, for instance. Still, there is reason to think Roenicke and the Brewers came out ahead by examining who bunted.
Four well-below-average hitters attempted nine of their 14 tries, with runs scoring in eight instances. While we can't be sure of the outcomes were the batters allowed to swing away, it seems unlikely they would've had an 89 percent success rate in plating a run.
Norichika Aoki's inclusion might surprise, seeing as how he's an elite contact hitter capable of plating a runner from third without bunting, but he's one of Roenicke's favorite squeezers. During his rookie season, he successfully scored a run on six of his seven tries. (One occurrence happened as part of a three-bunt effort versus Henderson Alvarez over a three-inning stretch.)
Of the many qualms with the squeeze play, two stand out. First, it's a one-run strategy, much like a regular sacrifice bunt. Second, the squeeze situations tend to be in spots where a moderately deep fly ball can plate the run, not to mention plays to the infield where the defense is playing back. As a result, squeezing with none out is a bit of a waste. Sure enough, the majority of Milwaukee's attempts came with one out, though there were nearly a dozen no-out tries, and a few with two outs:
Brewers Bunt Count by Situation, 2011-2013
Roenicke's gutsiest squeeze call happened during the season's final weeks. The Brewers had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of the ninth of a tied game when Logan Schafer did this:
For all the risks and downsides involved, there are conditions where the play makes sense. Ultimately execution is the difference between a mistake and a success. Roenicke, for his faults as a manager, showed an understanding of who to squeeze with and when to do it in 2013.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.