Still, there was at least one puzzling decision made by Manager Dave Martinez during the game’s first half-inning, or at the very least a continuation of the team’s “metrics be damned” philosophy. Leadoff hitter Trea Turner singled and then stole second base, giving Adam Eaton a chance with a man on second and no outs. Instead of swinging freely, Eaton tried to bunt — “a continuation of a controversial strategy this season,” as The Post’s Sam Fortier put it at the time.
Eaton popped out to third base. Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto would each go down swinging, and so the inning ended with Turner still on second base. You could argue a case for small ball and scratching for runs against a dominant pitcher like Cole, but the numbers say that strategy is rarely a good one.
And yet, as Fortier noted, the Nationals have used it often. They tried bunting again in the fifth inning Tuesday night, after Kurt Suzuki walked to lead off the inning. Victor Robles couldn’t get his bunt down, and then swung away with two strikes, hitting a single that put runners on first and second. Both runners later scored, with two Washington runs coming in after there were two outs, leading some Nats fans to give thanks that Robles had been unable to bunt. (His single, in fact, increased Washington’s win probability from 54 percent to 61 percent.)
These decision weren’t outliers. There have been 18 sacrifice bunt attempts in the playoffs this year (a number that includes bunted balls and strikeouts while bunting), and the Nationals have accounted for 12 of them. Only one of those 12 attempts — a bunt by Eaton against the Dodgers in Game 2 of the NL Division Series — had a positive impact on the team’s win probability that night. Overall, Washington has scored three fewer runs than expected from these postseason bunt attempts, after factoring in the men on base and outs remaining in the inning of each attempt.
Here’s an easy way to understand why. You’d expect an MLB team to score 1.15 runs in an inning after putting a man on second with no outs. That figure drops to less than a run (0.95) after a successful sacrifice bunt that moves the runner to third at the cost of the first out. The average, of course, drops even further if the runner doesn’t advance and an out is recorded anyway (0.71), as it was in Eaton’s case Tuesday night. (The average increases to 1.76 runs if the bunt is successful and the runner reaches first, putting men on first and third with no outs.)
This high rate of bunting by Martinez’s Nats isn’t a postseason phenomenon, either. Since he took over as Nationals manager in 2018, Martinez’s team has attempted a major league-high 170 sacrifice bunt attempts during the regular season (including 75 from non-pitchers, the fourth most in the majors). The analytically driven Astros, by comparison, have just 43 sacrifice bunt attempts (38 from non-pitchers) over that span. All of Washington’s attempted bunts produced 18 fewer runs than the team should have expected given the men on base and outs remaining in the inning during each attempt.
How do you score runs? The Nationals have scored 14 more runs than expected this postseason off home runs and 60 more than expected off hits in general. This isn’t to say you can guarantee a player will get a timely hit or home run when needed — although Ryan Zimmerman and Juan Soto certainly made it seem like they could in Game 1. But it seems clear that a team is much better off letting its players swing freely at the plate rather than calling for bunts.
On the other hand, the Nats are 9-2 in the playoffs, and seem unlikely to change course now.