2023 SABR Analytics Conference Research Awards: Voting Open Now!

The date is June 21, and Justin Verlander has just struck out Mitch Haniger for the first out of the fifth inning. It was his 10th strikeout of the game, and if it wasn’t vintage Verlander that’s only because he didn’t throw his (once) devastating changeup, instead relying on a curveball with more drop than a Tiesto banger to play off his riding, mid-90s heater.

He then worked a 1-1 count to Jarrod Dyson before the speedster pushed a bunt just out of the Verlander’s outstretched glove, into the Bermuda Triangle between the pitcher, first baseman, and second baseman, ultimately arriving at first base without a throw.

There’s nothing particularly notable about this sequence of events, excepting Verlander’s exceptional strikeout rate in this outing. Dyson isn’t much of a hitter and his wheels are his best asset, so bunting for a hit is well within his game. But people got upset, as people do, because Verlander was in the midst of a perfect game at the time. The Detroit television announcers asked the question that was on many people’s mind at the time:

Mario Impemba: Here’s a question: in strict terms of “baseball rules,” when is it too late to bunt for a base hit in a no-hitter?

His broadcast partner, Kirk Gibson, opined that there’s nothing cheap about Dyson’s play and remarked that it’s actually pretty smart, since swinging away wasn’t working at all.

Impemba: But there does come a time in the game where that’s frowned upon, I would … I would submit.

Gibson: I would say if it was 6-0 right now, I don’t know, maybe borderline.

Impemba: So you’re saying it’s more the score than the inn-

Gibson: Score and the innings.

There’s no need to delve into the unwritten rules of when it is okay to bunt for a base hit during a no-hitter/perfect game again, especially when Grant Brisbee does it better than anyone. Suffice to say that some people find it cheap, while others think the cheap thing is to not take every at-bat seriously and try to set your team up for a win. It’s interesting to see noted hardass Kirk Gibson admire the play by Dyson―but then again, trying to win no matter what is very Kirk Gibson, too.

No, rather than pass judgment on whether it’s acceptable, cheap, acceptably cheap, or otherwise, I wonder why we care at all. Why does our investment in Justin Verlander’s attempt at greatness hinge on the score? The inning? The score and the inning?

It turns out others far smarter than myself have tackled these questions, if not specifically about baseball. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky were mathematical psychologists who essentially founded the field of behavioral economics. Michael Lewis’s recent book, The Undoing Project, covers their lives, and in it lies a scenario that hints at what is taking place when we argue about the etiquette of when it is acceptable to bunt for a base hit:

“You have participated in a lottery at a fair, and have bought a single, expensive ticket in the hope of winning the single large prize that is offered. The ticket was drawn blindly from a large urn, and its number is 107358. The results of the lottery are now announced, and it turns out that the winning number is 107359.”

They ran this scenario with three different groups. One was exactly as you see above. The others had the winning number as “207358” (Group 2) and “618379” (Group 3), and in each iteration they asked their subjects to rate their unhappiness on a 1-20 scale. The first group, the one in the prompt above, reported the greatest unhappiness. Group 2 was also more unhappy than Group 3. Indeed, as Lewis writes:

“[T]he further the winning number was from the number on a person’s lottery ticket, the less regret they felt. ‘In defiance of logic, there is a definite sense that one comes closer to winning the lottery when one’s ticket number is similar to the number that won,’ [Kahneman] wrote in a memo to [Tversky], summarizing their data. In another memo he added that ‘the general point is that the same state of affairs (objectively) can be experienced with very different degrees of misery,’ depending on how easy it is to imagine that things might have turned out differently.”

And that is the crux of our case with no-hitters, perfect games, bunting for hits, and baseball etiquette. Knowing that we have the capacity to feel unhappiness over not winning a raffle by one number in a hypothetical context, it makes sense that we’d feel an intense disappointment at watching potential history evaporate in front of us. Each of us buys a nine-numbered lottery ticket with every baseball game that we take in. Our cost is not always in dollars, but in time and allegiance; in emotional investment.

Each game, each lottery ticket is an assumed loss; that first-inning hit hardly registering as a disappointment, because we were unlikely to see that perfect game anyway. Even in the third inning, it’s just so far away as to seem abstract. It’s a bridge to be crossed when we arrive at it. By the fifth inning/number, you start to believe. It gains form and despite knowing it’s not likely, you can see it. The sixth is when that feeling settles in. You know everyone knows what is at stake, when you unconsciously realize how many other possible results have been eliminated; so that even though you know there’s a ways to go, it feels closer than you’d have ever assumed. The further a pitcher goes in a potentially historic outing—the closer and closer our lottery ticket gets to the winning number—the harder it gets to avoid disappointment in not getting there.

That’s really what this is about. The etiquette, the method in which our disappointment is served to us, is mostly inconsequential. It’s just a thing through which we can channel our regret, because without this thing, especially such a dinky thing as a bunt, we might have experienced transcendence. As Kahneman says later:

“The pain that is experienced when the loss is caused by an act that modified the status quo is significantly greater than the pain that is experienced when the decision led to the retention of the status quo.”

In this light, we understand why there was a significantly smaller sense of loss (if any) when John Lackey allowed a leadoff double before retiring 27 straight in 2006. (Well, that and it was John Lackey who did it.) Still, there’s clarity on why a decision to bunt—itself a departure from the status quo of swinging away—causes additional pain on top of its removal of the status quo of the game (no-hitter or perfect).

Understanding this process about ourselves probably won’t alter our behavior. Knowing that being one number off winning the lottery is no different than having every number be wrong in terms of odds. It feels worse no matter what. But what we can do is change how we understand and act toward other fans. Perhaps the next time a no-hitter or perfect game is lost via a bunt or some other weird happening, rather than argue about whether that happening is justifiable, just nod and say, “It sucks to lose out on that experience.” It does.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
Excellent artice, enjoyed the ticket example. Thanks!