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Last week, I did a quick survey on that newfangled “social media.” I asked the allegedly real people out there to answer a common question: “Who is the greatest baseball player of all time and why?” But then I asked them to censor the “Who?” part. (He was busy at first base anyway.) So don't tell me the name; just tell me the rationale. Of course, there are plenty of “right” answers for “Who?” Yes, we could look to see who has the Most. WAR. Ever. like this allegedly real person did:

But “greatest” is a much more elusive word. We live in a world where the all-time hit leader and all-time home run leader have been deemed unworthy of the Hall of Fame. The most loathed currently active player also happens to be the active leader in career WAR. But when we strip away the baggage that comes with the names, discussing the rationale behind why someone was great leads to more interesting insights. It might not get us closer to answering the question of what objectively wins more baseball games, but it does show a bit of how people identify the Platonic ideal of what a baseball player should look like.

There were several responses that I got that included the word “dominance.” For example, this one:

I get the dominance angle. There were some players who were just head and shoulders above their peers at the time. In a different era, they might have been a little less freakish, but you can’t really pick when you are born. Makes sense.

But then there were the responses that focused on how “complete” a player was. He had “all the tools.”

This is the Willie Mays model of dominance (I’m guessing both were referencing Mays). Mays, of course, has every right to be in the discussion for “the greatest ever” but it’s the idea that the first criteria that some people reached for was “completeness” that interests me. Baseball is a game that cries out for a “complete” player. The neat thing about the game is that it has a way of passing out assignments to its players not based on their talents, but in a much more arbitrary way. In basketball, if a situation calls for a three-point shot, a coach has the luxury of being able to put in his best three-point shooters and designing a play that will go to the guy he wants. In baseball, a situation might call for a home run (well, what situation doesn’t?) but the manager must send up the player whose name comes next on the lineup card. Even if that’s Seven of Nine. He can pinch-hit with someone who happens to be on the bench, but Seven is now gone from the game. Sometimes, the big slow guy represents the tying run. Sometimes the other team hits a bunch of fly balls to the guy in left field who's out there because “We had to put him somewhere” while your Gold Glove shortstop might field a gimme grounder or two that any competent major leaguer wearing a glove could have taken care of.

***

I had a GChat conversation with Ben Lindbergh last week in which he asked me an interesting question. Why don’t teams bunt any more? We hear constantly that in an environment where every run counts more, shouldn’t we see an upturn in smallball strategies? The run environment hasn’t been this starved for action in years. Where have all the bunts gone?

The lack of bunting in the modern game is one of those things that game purists like to complain about. I’m not sure if they like bunting for the sake of bunting, or if they feel bunting ability is some sort of indicator of overall baseball prowess, or if they simply believe that the bunt imparts some sort of moral excellence on the bunter himself. We know that bunting, even as it is practiced now with generally poor hitters being asked to bunt in front of generally good hitters, is basically a break-even strategy. Even against the dreaded infield shift, bunting works on isolated occasions, but when you do the math, it’s not the free base hit bonanza that you might think. Asking a good hitter to bunt is downright silly, and asking a bad hitter to bunt doesn’t do much for you. There are few cases in which a bunt actually makes mathematical sense. So, why practice bunting when a) there are only a few chances you’ll ever get where it will be used and b) you can do just as well swinging away, a skill that you certainly do want to practice.

There is some benefit to being able (and willing) to occasionally bunt. As far as beating the shift goes, it’s not a lot of benefit, but there’s some. For example, the mathematically best model for bunting to beat the shift is that a hitter should do so at random times and at a rate that is just slightly below the rate at which he hits a groundball to the opposite field. Most hitters are being shifted specifically because those hitters don’t hit groundballs to the opposite field very often. Therefore, the benefit to practicing bunting isn’t all that great, especially given the opportunity costs of doing so. This is one of those greatly ignored issues in Sabermetrics. We can quantify how much value a player can produce by bunting. We can project how much more he would produce if he were 20 percent better at bunting than he is now. We could probably also come up with a reasonable program for him to follow to get better at bunting. But is it worth his time. I don’t mean that in the sense of whether he should feel bothered to do so. Is learning to be a better bunter actually worth the 30 minutes a day (or whatever) it would take for him to do so? Would he instead get better results by taking a power nap for that half hour?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!

In the now-venerable The Book, author Mitchel Lichtman suggested that a team would actually benefit from dropping a bunt down once in a while to keep the defense honest. After all, if a team came out before the start of a game and presented an affidavit to the other manager that he had no intention of bunting, and was under penalty of death if he did so, the other team wouldn’t have to worry about playing the third baseman in a little bit to potentially handle a bunt and they could also shift to their heart’s content. When it comes to potential sacrifice bunts, that extra couple of steps closer that the third baseman has to play cuts off a tiny bit of his range if the batter swings away. Playing back, the third baseman has a little extra time to react to groundballs and thus, a little more range than when he’s playing close because of the possibility of the bunt. What’s that extra couple of steps worth?

Using data from 2010-2014, I identified all players who had at least five plate appearances which ended in a bunting attempt (either a sacrifice or an attempt for a hit). To weed out the pitchers, I had a minimum threshold of 250 PA in that season. This makes sure that we have a group of hitters where at least the defense has to respect that the hitter is a realistic threat to drop a bunt down. Using only these hitters, I looked for situations in which a bunt was likely (runner on first, no runner on third, runner on second is optional, and no one out) and in which a bunt would be downright silly (same runner configuration, just to keep that the same, but this time with two outs). I controlled for the pitchers whom they faced and the league average, and using a logistic regression (the log-odds method), calculated their expected BABIP, with a dummy variable in there to code for whether the situation was a no out (he could bunt!) situation or a two out (we know he’s not bunting here) situation. I only looked at plate appearances in which he swung away.

The results? In situations with this configuration of baserunners, hitters had an overall .311 BABIP (again, 2010-2014). If we assume that our hitter was league average and facing a league average pitcher, with two outs–when we know he won’t be bunting—we estimate his BABIP would be .306. With no one out, the model predicts a BABIP of .321. Big effect, right? Fifteen points!

Not exactly. I re-ran the same regression for the group that had four or fewer bunt attempts and got roughly the same results. I took it down to a group that had zero bunt attempts for that year and got roughly the same results. In fact, if we look at situations where a runner is on first and not on third (again, second base is optional), with no outs, there was an overall BABIP of .321 and with two outs, a BABIP of .299. That’s a difference of 22 points. Even if we make the rather tenuous assumption that with our potential bunters, we are only seeing a 15 point spread, and their 7 point advantage is due to their bunting prowess, we’re not seeing much of an effect.

Taking a hitter who gets 600 PA in a season, a league-average hitter will be in a potential bunting situation (runner on first, none out, no one on third), 6.8 percent of the time (41 PA). The ball was in play in 68 percent of the time (down to 28 PA), and 7 points of BABIP would mean two-tenths of an extra hit each year over the course of a year. The actual number might vary, but that’s the level of magnitude that we’re talking about. Being a well-known bunter might score you an extra hit every five years in a sac bunt situation because the third baseman is playing in a little closer and you swung away.

But, let’s look at the other place where a bunt could be useful—against a shift. Mathematically, bunting against the shift works until you’ve done it enough times that the defense simply realizes that they are just giving away cheap hits, and they take the shift off. For example, if David Ortiz bunted every time he came to the plate, teams would stop shifting. But then again, if he then started swinging away every time after that, the shift would come back. There’s a cat-and-mouse game to be played (game theory!).

We know that a shift depresses BABIP on grounders and soft liners by about 35 points when compared to similar hitters played without shifts. If we assume again 600 PA, and that our hitter puts the ball in play at a league-average rate of 68 percent of the time and when he hits into play, hits a groundball or soft liner roughly half the time, we’re still talking about 204 plate appearances in which the shift comes into play. If this hitter were being shifted all the time, we would expect him to lose roughly seven hits over the course of a season—assuming that all he ever did was to swing away. If he started to bunt (successfully) in a little more than 1 percent of his plate appearances (1 percent of 600 = 6 hits), the defense should stop shifting and return to playing him straight up. They’d rather give up those seven extra hits by not shifting than give up 10 bunt hits. But that means that simply by being willing and able to drop an obvious bunt in one percent of his plate appearances, a hitter who sees a lot of shifts can get seven hits back onto his ledger over the course of a season. Changing an out to a single is worth roughly three-quarters of a run, and over the course of a season, that’s worth about five runs. Half a win. Not bad.

He might get those hits in the form of bunt singles or he might get them in the form of scaring the defense into realizing that playing the shift against him is unprofitable and then with the shift off taking advantage of it. But either way, it makes sense for a power hitter who sees a lot of shifts to take bunting lessons. They wouldn’t even have to use it very often, but the upgrade could be worth half a win. And where else can you get an upgrade of half a win?

He Can Do Everything But Should He?

Here’s a fun and counterintuitive finding. Players who are normally considered good bunting material probably should stop worrying about bunting. Yes, there is a very tiny game theoretical aspect to implanting the idea into the other team’s head, but as we see, it’s not very large at all. A manager could present that non-bunting pledge and not lose much. When you compare it against the amount of time that a player needs to become a good bunter and what else he could potentially do with that time, the difference could be made up rather quickly. Of course, the manager doesn’t have to present that affidavit, and since there is a small benefit to laying down a bunt once in a while and bunting is sort of a break-even strategy anyway, there’s nothing wrong with doing it once in a while, but teams shouldn’t obsess over it. In addition, teams should stop worrying about having a bench player who keeps his job because he can drop down a bunt. Instead, they should worry about having a bench player who is good at hitting. They’ll derive much more benefit from that than they will from bunting. And freed of the need to do bunting drills, because of the fear of “Well… what if we get into a bunting situation?” managers, and even entire organizations can focus on other things. Maybe fielding drills at a new position to increase versatility. Or naps. It goes against the idea that a player (or somewhat by extension) a baseball team should be ready for any situation, which is a powerful force. We like our Renaissance men in baseball. But mathematically, it’s not an optimal strategy.

On the other hand, big pull-happy power hitters who see a lot of shifts—the guys who a manager would never dream of using in a bunt situation—should take bunting lessons. If for no other reason than if they use it even once in a while, they get ahead and potentially force the other team to take the shift off. And that can be worth around half a win. It might be a pride thing that they don’t, but it’s free money on the table, right there for the taking.

But the bigger lesson is that teams spend a lot of time working on a skill that doesn’t really mean much. Those of us who specialize in telling baseball teams what they are doing wrong often talk as if there are an infinite number of hours in the day. The reality is that while teams do their best to create well-rounded players, eventually it gets dark. There’s a concept in education reform called “one more thing”-ism. It’s the idea that we could add one more thing to the curriculum that has good solid evidence to back it up. But when would that happen?

Instead, teams might need to look at what skills actually bring a good return on investment. Instead of “in omnia paratis!” they should shout “We did a cost/benefit analysis of various skills and have designed a curriculum of the skills that will be most useful in the most situations and will provide the most marginal value!” Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as well, but it might make for a better run organization. And yes, the traditionalists would balk. They don’t teach bunting? Shame! (And they’re having Ortiz bunt? Shame!) But if there’s a consistent source of exploitable inefficiencies in baseball, it’s when tradition and cultural expectations run headlong into logical calculations about what is the most efficient way to win a baseball game.

Thank you for reading

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jeffalt1970
4/28
Did you look at what the overall success rate is when trying to bunt for a base hit instead of a sacrifice bunt?
pizzacutter
4/28
I didn't break it down like that here. For a player being played without a shift, if he's known as a threat to try to bunt for a hit, he's probably also a threat to lay down a sac bunt. I'm guessing that the defense will play him pinched in at third either way. For guys bunting against the shift, last year, I found that for hitters who had exactly one bunt attempt (whether it went fair or foul), they were successful in landing it in fair territory roughly half of the time. Presumably if they got one down fair, it would be an "automatic" base hit for them.
hotstatrat
4/28
Warning: extremely tangental comment: For assessing greatness, it is apparent that WAR has a major flaw. Being ridiculously good has a greater impact than the linear values calculated by either version of WAR. It needs to be exponential. Sandy Koufax is a perfect example that illustrates this. By WAR, he's a questionable Hall of Famer, yet for several years, he was the most dominant pitcher ever. He elevated a very pedestrian team to two World Championships and a third pennant. No question, if he were healthy for all of '62, the Dodgers would have had even more to brag about. His career was short and took awhile to really take off, but it is hard to see how a long careeer like a Gaylord Perry really adds up more than a Sandy Koufax's five year explosion.

Certainly one part of the equation that WAR leaves out is the ultimate goal of baseball. Is it merely winning games or is winning championships nearly as important? Some folks (not me) think champinships are more important. You can't pick your teammates, but arguably a player with a 10 win WAR impact that vastly increases a team's chances of a post season by more than 10 times a player with a 1 win WAR. Think about it: which team is going to have a better shot at post season glory: a team that fills 10 roster spots with 1 win players, or a team with a 10 win player and takes it's chances at finding above 0 win players at the other 9 spots?
Machaut
4/29
Given a large enough sample, they have a roughly equal shot at postseason glory. WARs are pretty neat like that.
hotstatrat
5/06
Yeah, well, performing better in high leverage occasions - which could include all post season play - may be a matter of luck, but the results in those contests do matter a great deal. I don't think it satisfying to dismiss it all.

You have to admit that it is dismissed out of convenience - it is challenging to compare post season stats with regular season stats, so they are left out entirely. If we take the trouble to program them appropriately, why wouldn't we want computers to compute post season play about twice as important per batter (whatever is appropriate) than regular season play? Counting it at all is better than completely ignoring it.
lichtman
4/29
Good analysis, Russell!

"But then again, if he then started swinging away every time after that, the shift would come back. There’s a cat-and-mouse game to be played (game theory!)."

That isn't true and there is not really any game theory involved because one side gets to see the other side's strategy before deciding upon theirs.

Once someone like Big Papi indicates his intention to bunt when the shift is on, and his overall WE is greater than no shift, then the defense will stop shifting of course. Then if Papi swings away every time once the shift is removed, which he will, there is nothing that the defense can do about that. They can't start shifting again. Every time they do, he will simply bunt.

Now, if each side had to make their decision without knowing their opponents' decision, and stick to it, then game theory would be implicated and both sides would choose a strategy which resulted in a Nash equilibrium.

Papi would bunt some percentage of the time, randomly, and the defense would employ some kind of hybrid partial shift, presumably, or they would shift or not shift some percentage of the time.

Come on Russell!
pizzacutter
4/29
I think that there is still some game theory, even though the defense has to "show their hand" first. Let's say that tomorrow, Ortiz starts bunting all the time and has an .800 OBP over the next two weeks -- all bunt singles. Teams would do the obvious and not shift any more. (At the very least, they would move the one remaining infielder on the left side to play like a pinched in third baseman and leave the entire left side of the infield virtually unprotected.)

But then Ortiz starts swinging away and enjoying the fruits of not having the second baseman cut off his grounders in short right field. (Or if they play a three on right, third baseman pinched in, he will get some extra hits based on balls that he hits in the general shortstop area.) Teams once again think about going back to the shift.

If Ortiz is mini-maxing everything correctly, he will resume bunting and you're right that game theory doesn't really apply. Then it's just a math equation for the defense as to which alignment allows the fewest runs/hits and Ortiz to respond appropriately.

But we've already seen that guys like Ortiz aren't taking the obvious solution in front of them now (bunt!) because "I'm not getting paid to bunt." Ortiz could see the initial flurry of bunts as a way to get rid of the shift. A temporary con, if you will, but he has no intention of becoming a permanent bunt machine based on his view of who he is as a hitter. (It's not efficient, but male pride is not known for its efficiency.) He's banking on the fact that "Now that they see that I can bunt, they won't put the shift on me any more and I can swing away in peace" and hopes that the defense doesn't, in effect, call his bluff. That's where the game theory comes in. Even if Ortiz shows that he has the talent to do it, there's a reasonable chance, based on what we know about how players think about bunting against the shift, that he'll actually employ the mathematically correct decision when it comes time.