We don’t really do this kind of thing very much anymore. Saber-slanted baseball writing used to consist largely of criticizing poor strategic choices made by teams, either within games or over the course of a season. We won that war, though. Teams are so much smarter these days that kvetching about a bad sacrifice bunt or intentional walk here or there feels a bit like hosting a Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure.
Here’s the thing: it is good to be reminded, now and then, that rabies is still out there. If you pretend the disease has been permanently eliminated, or that it doesn’t pose a real public danger, you end up with anti-vaxxer movements among people who call themselves “dog parents." With that in mind, I want to talk about two bunts laid down last Tuesday night, why they were misguided, and why it matters.
Let’s start in Minnesota, where the Twins hosted the Rockies. Kyle Freeland was pitching for Colorado, and found himself in early trouble. It was a hot, humid night, and rain had threatened the game for most of the day. The crowd was of a good size, but not in full voice. Each pitcher escaped a jam in the first inning after putting the first two opposing batters on. Everything about the game felt a bit off, like a jog that begins with a stumble and leaves your stride feeling wrong for a mile.
The Rockies plated two runs in the top of the second inning, a rally catalyzed (I guess) by a sacrifice bunt from shortstop Pat Valaika with two on and no outs. Valaika is a right-handed batter, and was facing the right-handed Phil Hughes. The bunt he laid down brought lefty-hitting Tony Wolters to the plate, with lefty-hitting Charlie Blackmon behind him. Wolters drove in a run with a groundout. Blackmon drove one in by blooping a single down the right field line.
Against the rookie Freeland, though, the Twins got right back into the game. Their half of the second inning began with a walk (to Jorge Polanco, batting right-handed against the southpaw) and an RBI double, a ball Jason Castro guided over third base and down the left field line. That brought up Byron Buxton, with a runner on second and no outs. Buxton bunted.
I’m not here to drag you to the run expectancy matrix. If you’re this deep in this article on this site, you know that the bunt lessened the actuarial run expectancy for the Twins in that inning. I want to talk about all the ancillary things that were wrong with the decision. Firstly, it was Buxton at the plate. He’s had a nice few weeks, rebounding from a horrific few weeks. He’s starting to look like a good bet to keep himself in the lineup (if only just). He remains young, inexperienced, and unproven, however, and he has a lot of growth left at the plate. Taking the bat out of his hands—and that’s what this was; the bunt he put down gave him no hope of beating out a hit with his elite speed—just doesn’t make developmental sense.
More importantly, it didn’t make competitive sense to do it in that situation. Freeland has a pair of solid fastballs, a very good cutter, and a changeup that doesn’t yet work at the big-league level. His changeup lacks the run of even his four-seam fastball, and comes in too firm to induce swings and misses. To succeed with that pitch, he needs to set it up by throwing his fastball inside against righties, and he needs to locate perfectly at the bottom of the zone and below. By the time Buxton came to bat, it was already apparent that Freeland wasn’t going to be able to do so Tuesday night.
Wolters, catching, had made three visits to the mound already. Freeland can control both sides of the plate, but clearly lacked the confidence to do so against the Twins’ powerful right-handed hitters. He also wasn’t keeping the ball down as consistently as he usually has this season. Buxton’s bunt gave Freeland his first out of the frame, and a nice little reset. It gave him a break, when the Twins already had him somewhat on the ropes. It brought up Eddie Rosario, a left-hander, which put Freeland’s best pitch (that cutter/slider hybrid) back into play. Rosario flew out too weakly to plate Castro, so the bunt went to waste.
Brian Dozier whacked an RBI double thereafter, scoring Castro, but that only served to underscore the folly in giving away an out. Freeland wasn’t working inside against righties, and the Twins made him pay early on. In the fourth frame, Buxton came up again, and drilled a no-doubt home run to center field on a pitch on the outer part of the plate.
Still, the free out (and the pretty easy one right behind it) changed Freeland’s night. He was able to hold some things in reserve. He kept his pitch count down really well, considering the batters he walked, and started busting the lesser Twins righties inside the second and third times through the order. He still couldn’t get Dozier out, and got away with mistakes to Miguel Sano and Kennys Vargas in the fifth inning, but Freeland made it through six innings and only let up three runs—those two in the second, and then Buxton’s homer in the fourth. The Buxton bunt bailed him out. It gave him an easier path through the rest of his outing. Going on nothing more than the feel and rhythm of that game, it was a bad strategic decision. Going by the numbers, of course, it was merely incorrect.
Hours and hours later, it seemed, the Angels and White Sox found themselves winding down an extra-inning contest. Tim Anderson had homered to give Chicago the lead in the top of the 11th, and David Robertson stayed in for a second inning to try to lock the thing down. Anderson’s homer felt like the capper on a fun win for the White Sox, who’d scored three times in the ninth just to push the game into extra frames.
Things went sideways right away. Andrelton Simmons singled to lead off the bottom of the 11th. That brought up Danny Espinosa, and Mike Scioscia called for a bunt. That was a bad idea, statistically, but again, you know the basic data on that. Ben Revere was on deck to pinch-hit for Martin Maldonado, and it’s true that Revere lacks power, so the vague notion of setting up a game-tying single was easy to grok. With Espinosa up, though, Simmons was basically in scoring position already. Since the start of 2015, 39 percent of Espinosa’s hits have gone for extra bases.
As it turned out, Espinosa also isn’t a good bunter in the first place. He bunted right through the first pitch from Robertson, which so surprised Omar Narvaez that the ball skipped off his mask and allowed Simmons to take second, anyway. Then Espinosa bunted again. That was the moment when I decided to write about this. It was an awful bunt, right back to Robertson, and too firm. Robertson threw to third base for the out, and the Angels’ budding rally was immediately imperiled. More pressingly, though, the decision to lay down the bunt was thoroughly foolish.
Once the runner reached second base, any hit to the outfield would have a good chance of tying the game. Espinosa also stood a great chance of hitting a grounder to the right side, since he was batting left-handed, which would have had exactly the same result as a successful sacrifice bunt. Not giving him a chance to drive home the run was just a poor choice. It also signified that Scioscia was playing for the tie, which is an alarming choice in the 11th inning, with the Angels’ bullpen already depleted. He should have been playing to win. Instead, the Angels skipper gave the White Sox the only out they managed to record during that inning, which eventually saw Anaheim score twice to win.
Again, these moments get less common with every passing year. Buxton’s was just the second sacrifice bunt the Twins have laid down this year. Eight teams have laid down two or fewer sacrifices by position players. Last year, Scioscia’s Angels laid down an MLB-high 36 such sac bunts. In 2006, the league leaders in position player sac bunts were the Rockies, who had 73 of them. In 1996, the Royals led the way, with 80.
The data has proven this strategy largely useless, and teams have responded to that. Still, there are times when they revert to conventional wisdom. When they do so despite a number of non-numerical indicators that it’s a bad time for it, we should continue to make note of it. Have your pets, children, and self vaccinated, and stay vigilant about bad bunts. Bunting is not going to go away forever on its own.