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Reviving Moneyball Play: Why I Hate The Sacrifice Bunt

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Last call for SoCal AN Day tickets! The final ticket order will be placed tomorrow at midnight, so order yours now!

Just for fun, and because I doubt we'll stay here very long, I would like to direct your attention to the SB Nation Power Rankings, where your first-place Oakland Athletics have soared up the charts, moving from 21 to 12! You'd never know it from last night, but at least we have one more day to savor the top spot in the West.

Tonight's rubber game will be at 7:10, so we have the entire day to chat. Specifically, I would like to talk about the sacrifice bunt, or in other words, what happened to the A's of the Moneyball era?

From Eric Walker's, The Sinister First Baseman (the precursor to Moneyball), "A Desultory Phillippic":

One of the recurring themes in the game of baseball is the delicacy of its many balances, the nicety of the differences between winning and losing; so these options, though they may be perhaps small influences by comparison with such larger factors as the innate abilities of the players, are quite capable of exerting a major effect on net results. Though a number of such options exist, each with its own range of possibilities, there are, at bottom, two basic, opposed philosophies that may guide a manager's pattern of choices within these options. Choices like stealing, bunting, using the hit-and run: these are tactical moves. The range of strategy is bounded by the two extremes frequently denominated the "big inning" approach and the "play for one run" approach. The terms are apt descriptions of the underlying logic.

I hate the sacrifice bunt. There, I said it.

I hate giving away outs. I don't care what the official playbook says the batter should do; there are only 27 outs in a baseball game, and I hate when one is handed to he other team on a silver platter. I especially hate this when a patient batter, who is one of your better hitters, is at the plate and a distracting baserunner is on the basepaths. I'm all about stealing bases, but I can't stand the thought of giving outs away.

Each strategy represents an approach to the minimization of risks. There is nothing much for a strategist to work with until a man gets on base; then there is a lot. Take the simple and common case of a runner on first with none out. One obvious risk is that the succeeding batters will make three outs without advancing him home. Another risk is that he will be involved in a double play. There are ways to possibly reduce these risks. If he steals second, the double-play risk is virtually eliminated, and his chances of being stranded somewhat lessened; in return, however, he assumes the risk of being thrown out stealing.

Good management consists of making intuitive estimates of the relative magnitudes of these two sets of risks, as well as of those involved in the other possible alternatives, such as a bunt or a hit-and-run-play. These probabilities are not fixed things; a manger cannot reach a firm decision about each and then blindly follow it.

Here is my problem with Sunday's sacrifice bunt, to use a specific example, and it is also my early problem with the current management style. Each and every at-bat should be analyzed based on the runner(s) involved, the batter involved and the game situation, not what 'traditional baseball' says should be done. I think a sacrifice bunt is the wrong call in almost all situations, but especially this one.

It's the first inning of the game. Rajai Davis walks, and promptly steals second base. Joe Morgan-esque baseball mandates that the batter (Daric Barton) should bunt, thus moving the runner to third base, where he can score in any number of ways, without the A's even needing a hit. Sounds simple and automatic, does it not?

The "one-run" strategy generally involves a great deal of managerial button-pushing. The emphasis is on what is variously termed "execution", "doing the little things right", or, most presumptuous, "sound fundamentals." When the very second batter of the game lays down a satisfactory sacrifice bunt, he is "showing good execution," and the team is "playing sound fundamental baseball." Please note that if he instead blasts the ball into the upper deck for a two-run homer, your favorite sportcaster will never say that the man executed well, or that his shot was good fundamental baseball.

This book was written in the 80's, but feel free to add, "He plays the game the right way" to the list of trite and obnoxious phrases that basically mean that the batter didn't hit a homerun.

In our specific situation, with a 1-1 count, with Rajai successfully distracting the pitcher, Barton successfully bunted Rajai to third base. Congratulations; our best hitter just gave up his very first at-bat in exchange for 90 feet.

And don't even get me started on Monday night's sac bunt by the red-hot Rosales; everyone in the stadium, including the people on the train and Jake Fox himself, knew that that runner was going to be stranded at third. Last night's bunt is easier to defend, since Travis Buck is hitting at the level of a pitcher, but again, there are only 27 outs in the game and you've just given away one. And it didn't work either; that runner died at third, in what is rapidly becoming a theme for the A's.

Conversely, the big-inning approach is based on the idea of competent hitters. It is often somewhat erroneously associated with long-ball hitting, but really it relies more on a good on-base percentage than power per se; the basic concept is that the batter won't make out all that easily. Still, good RBI power will generally be associated with the "big-inning" approach. Broadly speaking, the manager is gambling an increased risk of no runs at all against increased chances for multiple runs.

Even if Rajai scored during Sweeney's first-inning at-bat (he didn't), I would still hate the call. The game started off with a baserunner on second and no one out; why not let Barton try to get on base himself? He walks a lot, and with a hit; it's likely that Rajai either scores or you have two baserunners on and no one out. Sure, with the bunt, you have a slightly better chance of scoring that one run, but you certainly diminish your chances of scoring more than one. And if you're playing for one run in the first inning when your ultimate goal is to score many runs as possible to win a baseball game, you're doing it the wrong way!

Unfortunately, all too many managers are doctrinaire about their strategy, and (like most people) the more their illogic is exposed, the more adamant they get. Watching a .280-hitting, 20-plus home-run-a-year #3 or #4 batter try to dump a sacrifice bunt is not funny; it's painful. It's bad enough even if it works, and far worse when it doesn't, which is most of the time. Worst of all is to later hear that manager bellyaching about how none of these kids know how to execute the fundamentals (remember that one?) any more. In my naïveté, I have always thought that getting a hit was the fundamental of batting, and that 150 to 200 of them a year qualified a batter as competent; but no, I guess making an out is today's new fundamental of batting.

1982. This book was written in 1982. Thirty years later, and we're still explaining this idea, and I'm looking now at the team who started it all and wondering, What are you doing?

Regardless of any of your feelings on these topics, one thing is clear. It does not matter what you believe; the truth is that we cannot possibly remember every little nuance of a game, or every single AB of a player. We need something to remind us, and for a lot of us, we find it infinitely more accurate to go with actual numbers than our gut feelings. You want to know if Smallball is a good way to manage a game? Well, all we can do is look at tangible data; in this case, the odds of a runner scoring from first with no one out and the odds of a runner scoring from second with one out, and any other data we deem relevant when making a decision.


I'll spell it out: There is a slightly higher percentage of that one run scoring if you bunt the runner over to second base, but by giving up the out with a sacrifice, you reduce the number of total runs scored by a run every other time it's used. Practical application? A team that tries to sacrifice a hundred times over the course of a season in an attempt to get those single runs across the plate has just cost itself about fifty runs overall.

Believe me, I subscribe to the theory that the 2010 Oakland A's need to be very creative in scoring runs. They are not going to have anywhere near the power of other clubs, and they will have to scratch and claw to score enough runs to complement their stellar pitching. All the more reason to not give up outs and at-bats, especially not Barton's!

Walker offers a ratio in the book: the runs your team has scored to the runs its opponents have scored. We are all familiar with this one; we use it all the time. How many runs a team has scored vs. allowed directly corresponds (within a reasonable margin for error) to that team's W/L record. Isn't the goal of baseball to score runs? Many runs? Knowing that the more runs you score, the more games you will win? Knowing that although you may lose one game 1-0, you may win a future game 10-9 because your ultimate goal is to score as many runs as possible?

And let's not forget; the sac bunt doesn't even always work. It costs us an out when it does work, but when it doesn't, it's literally a wasted at-bat.

Honestly, the only time I would use the sacrifice bunt is in the late innings when my team needed one run to win the game. I would take a chance to get a runner to third with less than two outs with just about anyone if it meant scoring that specific run to end the game.

(It goes without saying that none of this applies to pitchers' at-bats, I'm speaking AL-only.)

Now, don't misunderstand me. Bunting is fun. Sometimes it's a great idea. You'll notice that the most dramatic moment of the movie Major League actually came about on a bunt. But, please notice that that was bunting with a purpose; with a specific goal in mind, and that goal was not to make an out. Ramon Hernandez owns one of the most famous bunts in Oakland A's history, and his goal was not to make an out, but rather to creatively take advantage of the defense and get the runner home. It's not that I dislike the bunt itself; it's that I think it's an extremely stupid idea to waste a perfectly good out just because you are 'supposed' to. Taking advantage of what the other team is willing to give you offensively is smart baseball. Gift-wrapping an out and handing it to the other team is not smart baseball. And with games like last night's, we are going to need every one.

I'll see you all back here tonight for the game thread action as the A's try to win their third series in a row!

Current Series

3 game series vs Mariners @ SAFECO Field

Mon 04/12 WP: Justin Duchscherer (1 - 0)
LP: Ryan Rowland-Smith (0 - 1)
4 - 0 win
Tue 04/13 WP: Doug Fister (1 - 1)
SV: David Aardsma
LP: Brad Ziegler (0 - 2)
0 - 3 loss

Oakland Athletics
@ Seattle Mariners

Wednesday, Apr 14, 2010, 7:10 PM PDT

Gio Gonzalez vs Jason Vargas

Partly cloudy. Winds blowing in from left field at 5-10 m.p.h. Game time temperature around 50.

Complete Coverage >