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Elephant Rumblings: Should teams bunt with new extra inning rules?

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Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Good morning, Athletics Nation!

The 2020 MLB season will bring lots of changes, as the sport adapts to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. One of those new realities involves extra innings, where the rules will be fundamentally different than normal.

Starting in the 10th inning, teams will begin each frame with a free runner on second base, in an effort to spur the action, avoid marathon games, and get everyone off the field instead of lingering around increasing their exposure to each other. The idea has been tested in the minor leagues the last couple years, so it’s not coming completely out of nowhere.

With any change to the rules, much less one this significant, comes the question of strategy. What’s the smartest way to play this new situation, and what kinds of edges can be gained? Should you pinch-run? Bunt? Steal? Play it straight and hope for a single?

Over at MLB’s site, Mike Petriello took a look at the numbers in the search for answers. In particular, he investigated the idea of bunting the runner over to third base, where they can score on anything from a sac fly to an infield single to a wild pitch.

The short answer is that it doesn’t make much of a difference. The road team is hurt slightly by bunting, partly because plating one run isn’t a guarantee of victory in the top half of the inning. The home team might see a marginal increase in win probability, if they come to bat with the game tied and a walk-off opportunity.

Of course, there’s also the matter of personnel. If the batter is a weak hitter then it might be worth using him to advance the runner, but if he’s good at making lots of contact then you could play for the RBI single. Similarly, the speed of the automatic runner could make a difference. Also, is Matt Chapman playing third base for the other team? (If so, IT’S A TRAP.)

For the Oakland A’s, bunting might not be the best option. The strength of their lineup is power, not contact and batting average, although they actually had one of the lowest strikeout rates in the majors last year. Playing for one run on the road sells short their ability, and even at home their optimal bet might be to take as many swings as possible and hope to find a barrel.

Who in the A’s lineup would you give up for a sac bunt? Not Olson, Semien, Chapman, Laureano, Canha, or Davis, nor Piscotty if he’s back to his old self, and not Pinder if he’s facing a lefty. If Kemp or Barreto is up then you’re probably pinch-hitting anyway, and the same might be true for the catcher spot, unless Murphy pans out and keeps hitting dingers like he did last September. That leaves Grossman, who could be a candidate to lay one down, since his top skill of walking would be useless in a home-game situation — or even harmful, by filling the open bag and setting up the force at every base.

What would you do? Opening Day is just two weeks away, so we could find out soon how the A’s will play the new extra innings.

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