Bryce Harper’s bunt was a good play

September 2, 2013
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The sacrifice bunt, in a large segment of the baseball commentariat, has come to be greeted with reflexive scorn and mockery. Scores of research has proven it to be an overused and misguided tactic. It’s giving away an out. It’s lazy managing. It’s a relic. Even Brad Pitt hates the sac bunt.

And so, when Bryce Harper bunted in the eighth inning of a two-run game on national television, the instant reaction on Twitter and elsewhere was no surprise. The play was pilloried. One of the Nationals’ best hitters giving away an out? Madness! Idiocy!

Most of the time, sac bunts should be pilloried. But the visceral response to Harper’s bunt specifically owed more to anti-bunt instincts than a sound reading of the situation.

In a sample size of one, Harper’s bunt worked – the runners he advanced both scored to tie the game, and the Nationals eventually moved ahead, 6-5, in the inning to win a game they absolutely needed to win. Disregard the outcome, though, and consider the process.

The scorn sac bunts receive owes mostly to the knowledge provided by run expectancy charts, so let’s start there. Using historical data to determine probability, teams have averaged 1.556 runs in situations where there are no outs and runners on first and second, the situation Harper stepped into Sunday night. Teams scored on average 1.447 runs with one out and runners on second third. In a vacuum, Harper’s bunt decreased the Nationals’ expected run total from the inning.

Harper’s bunt did not occur in a vacuum, though. Harper is one of the Nationals’ best hitters on the whole, but not when he is facing a lefty. Against lefties this year entering Sunday night, Harper had hit .190/.312/.314. His struggles were even starker against left-handed relievers – Harper was 8 for 48 with 16 strikeouts, six walks, four doubles and one home run. On the mound stood lefty reliever Scott Rice.

The kind of outs Harper has made most frequently against lefties carried risk. Against lefties this year, 55.3 percent of Harper’s balls in play have been grounders. For context, only eight major league hitters this year have hit groundballs with such a frequency. Harper is a fast runner, but he still had a strong chance of hitting into a debilitating double play. Back to the run expectancy chart, teams average 0.387 runs when there are two outs and a runner on third. Bunting may have reduced the odds of a big inning, but it eliminated the odds of killing the inning.

Another important factor is that scoring one run mattered. The Nationals still had the ninth inning left, and so pushing across one run would have a huge impact on Nationals’ chances to win. Based on the old run expectancy chart, the Nationals had a 64.3 percent chance to score at least one run before Harper’s bunt and a 69.8 percent chance after.

Harper could have botched the bunt, but he also could have reached first himself. The Mets were surely not expecting a bunt, and Harper’s speed gave him a chance to reach on a well-placed bunt to load the bases.

All in all, the difference in run expectation between bunting and hitting away for Harper in that situation is probably marginal. Bunting offered less varied outcomes and therefore less risk. The Nationals had no chance of scoring a run or two on Harper’s at-bat and were nearly guaranteed to add an out to the inning. But they were also highly likely to have a better scoring chance, with essentially no threat of a disastrous double play. Even if bunting was not optimal – and there’s a chance it was – it was not at all a boneheaded play.

The best reason to support the bunt may have been what it said about Harper. After the game, he said he had decided to move the runners on his own. The bunt represented Harper’s honest recognition of his limitations. On Friday night, the Nationals allowed a crucial insurance run on Ryan Zimmerman’s heave across the diamond. He said afterward he would make the throw, “100 times out of 100.” But with his current arm strength, that is simply not a play he can make anymore.

Zimmerman thought he could do more than he is capable of. Sunday night, Harper looked out at the mound, saw a left-hander reliever and did not make the same mistake. He bunted, and sometimes we have to admit that’s not the worst thing.

FROM THE POST

The Nationals stage a dramatic comeback propelled by Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper in a 6-5 win.

Davey Johnson sat and talked with Bryce Harper on Sunday. Thomas Boswell has the details.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Ryan Mattheus on his struggles, a minor mechanical fix

Erik Davis, Ian Krol and Sandy Leon are Nationals’ first September call-ups

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Buffalo 5, Syracuse 4: Corey Brown went 2 for 4. Danny Espinosa went 1 for 4 with a strikeout. Tyler Robertson allowed no runs in two relief innings, striking out two.

Richmond 7, Harrisburg 3: Billy Burns went 2 for 3 with a walk. Steve Souza went 2 for 4 with a home run. Blake Treinen allowed one run in five innings on one hit and no walks, striking out seven.

Potomac was postponed.

Kannapolis 5, Hagerstown 3: Khayyan Norfork went 1 for 3 with a double. Pedro Encarnacion allowed four earned runs in five innings on 10 hits and no walks, striking out eight.

Auburn 10, State College 0: Jimmy Yezzo went 2 for 4 with a home run. Matt Foat went 1 for 5 with a grand slam. Bryan Lippincott went 2 for 3 with two walks. Robert Orlan allowed no runs in four innings on hit and three walks, striking out five.

The Nationals’ Gulf Coast League affiliate won the GCL championship by beating the Red Sox’ affiliate, 7-2. They finished an incredible 52-9 for the season, the best winning percentage ever for a domestic minor league team. Randy Encarnacio, a Dominican outfielder the Nationals signed in January 2011, hit .349/.437/.523 on the year. Drew Ward, the Nationals’ third-round pick this year, hit .292/.402/.387 for the season.

Adam Kilgore covers national sports for the Washington Post. Previously he served as the Post's Washington Nationals beat writer from 2010 to 2014.
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