By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005
The sacrifice bunt is evil, say the sabermetricians with their numbers and charts and spreadsheets. The cost of the out given up is greater than the value of the base gained, and they can prove it mathematically. Offer to elaborate about this to Washington Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, to show him the charts and spreadsheets, and a big hand emerges from below his desk and jabs -- palm out, fingers spread -- at the air in front of your face: Stop. Put your charts away, son.
"I don't live by the numbers," Robinson said firmly, "and I don't manage by the numbers. I put on the bunt when the situation calls for a bunt."
Home runs are cooler, and the triple is still the most exciting play in baseball, but inch-for-inch, no offensive play inspires as much passion as the lowly sacrifice bunt.
Its advocates, though dwindling in number, still get a thrill out of a perfectly executed one, and they still cringe at a botched one, which causes them, inevitably, to decry the state of modern baseball fundamentals. Critics of the sacrifice bunt, on the other hand, contend it is a losing play that, mathematically, reduces a team's scoring potential in most situations.
If the sacrifice bunt is indeed evil, then Robinson is the devil himself. Through Friday's games, the Nationals led the majors with 70 sacrifice bunts. By contrast, the Texas Rangers were last in the majors with eight. The mean for baseball's 30 teams was 42.
The vast gap between first and last can be explained in part by the inherent difference between the American and National leagues, as well as the relative strengths of the Rangers' and Nationals' offenses, which rank third and 30th in baseball, respectively, in runs scored.
"In our park, it's literally true that no lead is ever safe," said Rangers Manager Buck Showalter, during an interview in his office at Ameriquest Field. "So it doesn't make sense to give away an out with a sacrifice bunt, with this lineup in this park. That's not to say I'm anti-bunt. It's just a matter of our unique circumstances."
At the same time, the strategy of the sacrifice bunt sits at the crux of the power struggle within baseball between the younger, "Moneyball" crowd, and the sport's old guard soldiers, such as Robinson.
"People's adoration for the play is antiquated and needs to be updated for the modern game," said James Click, a writer for Baseballprospectus.com. Click acknowledged that his type of analytical thinking "is not something that's received well among the old-school crowd in baseball, which is unfortunate."
Last year, Click authored a three-part article that claimed to prove, mathematically, that the sacrifice bunt was, in most cases, a losing proposition. Click's conclusion was that it is an "archaic, outdated strategy."
Using data from the 2003 season, Click found that a team with a runner on first base and no outs subsequently averaged 0.919 of a run per inning. But with a runner on second and one out -- which is to say, following a hypothetical sacrifice bunt -- a team averaged 0.706 of a run per inning. That means a bunt in that situation actually "costs" a team 0.213 of a run each time it is deployed.
Similarly, with a runner on second and nobody out -- another potential bunt situation -- teams averaged 1.177 runs per inning, while a situation with a runner on third and one out yielded only 1.032 runs.
However, Click realized those numbers did not tell the full story, because they relied on an "average" player on an "average" team, with no regard to whether a team was playing for one run -- i.e., in the late innings of a close game.
So Click ran simulations using actual players to determine the thresholds for which specific hitters should and should not bunt. His conclusion: With a runner on first base and no outs, any hitter with an on-base percentage (OBP) of at least .206 and/or a slugging percentage (SLG) of at least .182 -- numbers that would encompass practically every hitter in the majors, including many pitchers -- should swing away. The only exception is when a team is playing specifically for one run, in which case the thresholds are a .282 OBP and/or .322 SLG.
"For most pitchers, it's probably a wash as to whether [a bunt] is a good idea," Click said in a telephone interview. "And with good-hitting pitchers, it's not a good idea. Any [hitter] who is good enough to have a major league job shouldn't be bunting in that situation."
And yes, Click said, that includes shortstop Cristian Guzman, the Nationals' notoriously pitcher-esque hitter.
The Nationals, he said, "are playing in a park [RFK Stadium] that's a pretty extreme pitchers' park. So I can understand, in a way, why they play that way with that lineup. You'd be hard-pressed to get big innings going in that park. But at the same time, if offense is so hard to come by, it's foolish to give away outs. . . . To simply say the sacrifice is always a bad idea is not true. But is it used too often? Yes."
After a pause, Click added, "It's a point of contention between people who work with stats and people who play the game."
That is putting it mildly. Robinson, for one, resents the notion of some guy sitting in an office somewhere in California telling him how to manage a game.
"I decide whether to bunt based on the situation, where we are in the game, who the hitter is, who's pitching for the other team, how good [a defensive player] the third baseman is," Robinson said. "We're not a real good team at [driving in] runners in scoring position. We don't have a lot of guys who can turn the game around with one swing of the bat. We also hit into a lot of double plays. All of those things factor into it."
Robinson bunts primarily with his pitchers, of course -- they account for 33 of the team's 70 sacrifices this season. But utility infielder Jamey Carroll (11) is tied for the lead for most number of sacrifices on the team, and everyone from Brad Wilkerson (three) to Jose Guillen (one) and Vinny Castilla (one) have laid down sacrifice bunts. However, as Robinson points out, sometimes his best hitters decide to bunt on their own.
As a future Hall of Fame outfielder in Baltimore, Robinson played for four seasons under Manager Earl Weaver (himself a Hall of Famer), who is widely considered the father of the anti-bunt movement. In his book, "Weaver On Strategy," the legendary skipper lists his "laws" of managing, the fourth of which is, "Your most precious possessions on offense are your 27 outs." Weaver's Fifth Law is a corollary: "If you play for one run, that's all you'll get."
"I hated playing for one run," Weaver said recently. "But I didn't always take my own advice. I never bunted with Frank Robinson or Boog Powell or Eddie Murray at the plate, of course. But I did it with [Mark] Belanger and [Paul] Blair, two real good players. I think I bunted them too much."
"He didn't want to give up an out," Robinson says of Weaver. "But each manager has to do what he thinks is best. Going up there and just swinging the bat -- I don't have that type of personality. He had that type of personality."
In recent years, Weaver's Fourth Law, regarding the precious nature of outs, has become one of the principal guideposts of the "Moneyball" crowd in baseball -- which is to say, the group of thinkers and front-office types who adhere to the philosophies described in Michael Lewis's 2004 book of that name.
Under the "Moneyball" principle -- which has gained traction around the game after being initially linked to only a few adherents, such as the Oakland Athletics, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays -- teams seek out hitters with high on-base percentages (who, thus, make fewer outs), and shy away from stolen base attempts.
They also tend to eschew the sacrifice bunt. Thus, it is probably not a coincidence that, other than the Rangers -- who have baseball's most powerful lineup and play in one of its most prolific hitters' parks (Ameriquest Field) -- the next three teams with the fewest sacrifice bunts this season are the Red Sox, Athletics and Blue Jays.
"Basically, my philosophy is, if it's the ninth inning and we have the winning run on base, I have no problem sacrificing," Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi, a onetime protege of Athletics GM (and "Moneyball" protagonist) Billy Beane. "But I'll tell you this: It hasn't worked too well. Earl Weaver had the greatest line -- if you play for one run, that's all you'll get. . . . It's not cut-and-dry in my book, but if I had my druthers, we wouldn't bunt very much at all."
ESPN and Comcast SportsNet analyst Buck Martinez, whom Ricciardi fired as Blue Jays manager in 2002, said Ricciardi used to drop by his office regularly to try to persuade him not to bunt so much. In 2003, the year after Martinez was fired, the Blue Jays set an all-time record for fewest sacrifice bunts in a season, with 11.
"I can understand the argument," Martinez said. "But the bottom line is, there is no one way to play baseball [or] to manage a baseball game."
Surprisingly, Bill James, who is often called the patron saint of the "Moneyball" movement because of his pioneering use of statistics to evaluate players, does not fully embrace the arguments made by Click and others against the sacrifice bunt.
"All studies of the sacrifice bunt of which I am aware show that the sacrifice bunt is a poor percentage play," James said in an e-mail. "But I have never found this argument convincing. The studies of the sac bunt tend to assume that there are two outcomes of the play -- a "successful" bunt, in which an out is recorded but the base[s] is [are] gained, and an "unsuccessful" bunt resulting in a forceout or pop out. In reality, there are a dozen or more reasonably common outcomes of a sac bunt effort, including a foul ball, an infield hit, an error on the third baseman [or somebody else], a fielder's choice/all safe, and a double play.
"There is really no way you can evaluate the bunt convincingly unless you establish the frequency of the entire range of options."
James concludes: "I do agree that there is little reason to believe that profligate bunting helps a team win. But if I were a manager, I would certainly signal a bunt with a good bunter against a poor defensive third baseman, and probably in some other situations as well."
The decline in emphasis on the sacrifice bunt has been accompanied by an equally profound decline in hitters' ability to bunt successfully, a self-perpetuating cycle that makes managers less inclined to put on a bunt play. That decline also can lead to someone getting hurt, as it did on May 10, when Baltimore Orioles outfielder Luis Matos broke his ring finger while making an awkward bunt attempt.
A successful bunt doesn't get you on "SportsCenter," the thinking goes, so why practice it? Baseball stages a home run derby as part of its all-star festivities every year, but there are no plans for a sacrifice bunt derby.
"The bunt is kind of a lost art," said Milwaukee Brewers Manager Ned Yost. "Even our pitchers who are supposed to be good bunters -- and we work on it every day -- they struggle to bunt. A lot of times, our success or failure [in a game] hinges around the bunt. And if a pitcher can't get a bunt down early in the game, it can kill us. Bunting is still a big part of the game, but it's fallen by the wayside in the last 10 years or so."
Robinson, too, grows frustrated by what he sees as a lack of dedication to fundamentals. In one game last month, two sacrifice bunt attempts by Guzman resulted in a combined three outs -- a double play and a strikeout -- without advancing a runner. In another game, Robinson decided to let Guzman swing away with runners on first and second and nobody out, and Guzman grounded into a double play.
Asked about the decline in the quality of bunting across the game these days, Robinson laughed and said even his pitchers hate bunting. "They cry about it," he said. "They'll say, 'I'm a pretty good hitter.' I'll say, 'You're hitting .130. How is that a pretty good hitter?' I tell them to get up there and bunt."