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Sac bunts and pitchers batting: A statistical loser


Putting down a sacrifice bunt with a runner at first base and no one out is the Major League Baseball equivalent of a football team attempting a field goal on fourth-and-four on its opponent’s 33-yard line in a scoreless game in the first quarter.

And fans have tired of that, too.

More, basic statistical data demonstrates that trading an out for 90 feet is not the most efficient way to plate a run.

Run expectancy matrices compiled by Fangraphs have confirmed what sabermetricians and Billy Beane disciples have said for years: A team has a greater chance of scoring a run with no one out and a runner on first base, than with one out and a runner on second.

Major League teams are catching on to this trend, and in fact the number of total sacrifice bunts laid down across both leagues is at its lowest level since the inclusion of the designated hitter.

A combined 925 sacrifice bunts were successfully executed throughout MLB in all of 2017. That is the lowest number of average sacrifices per game dropped in MLB history.

Reds pitcher Rookie Davis squares for a bunt in game last May.

It is also the first time since in modern MLB history the combined number of sacrifice bunts in a season was less than 1,000. Point of reference: As recently as 2011, the number of sac bunts exceeded 1,600.

Naturally, the teams with the most sacrifice bunts in the bigs all come from the National League.

The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants tied for the fewest sacrifice bunts in the NL last season with 31 apiece. Only one American League club logged more; the Chicago White Sox with 35.

The Boston Red Sox laid down only nine sac bunts all of last season.

According to this 2004 article from Baseball Prospectus, the likelihood of scoring a run with a runner on second base and one out is some 21 percent less than a runner on first and no one out.

“No matter who is coming up next, any batter hitting below .075 should always sacrifice, while any batter hitting better than .243 should never sacrifice. If nothing else, this conclusion lends further credibility to the idea that pitchers should almost always sacrifice if given the opportunity,” James Click concludes in that Baseball Prospectus article.

More recent run expectancy tables from Fangraphs back up that data.

All this opining over what a waste of an increasingly-valuable out the sac bunt is generously assumes that sacrifice bunts are a sure thing.

They aren’t.

Indeed, the MLB-average success rate for a sacrifice bunt is barely 50%. So, about half the time the tit-for-tat exchange of advancing a runner for one out backfires into just an out for the team at-bat, and a runner still stuck at first base.

The point of this public information campaign against the sacrifice bunt is to further advance the argument that it’s high time the senior circuit adopt the designated hitter.

This entire piece should not be taken as a complete indictment of the sac bunt.

“I’m looking at situations and matchups. Who’s coming up when I’m thinking about possibly giving a guy an opportunity to move a runner as opposed to potentially maybe getting a hit and having a guy hit a three-run homer instead of a two-run homer. It’s very circumstantial,” Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor was quoted telling Twin Cities print media in an article last October.

The Twins attempted 53 sacrifice bunts last season, second most in the American League.

Data compiled for Baseball Prospectus concludes that the only time it is to the statistical advantage of the offense to bunt is when there is a runner at second base, no one out and a single run is the goal.

That quote from Molitor rightly points out that situations including batter, score and the number of outs can impact the decision whether or not to move the runner along.

The real problem is that in the National League the decision is basically taken out of the manager’s hands altogether because pitchers are abysmal batters, and the entire exercise is a farce.

Among the more common complaints of baseball today is that the game moves too slowly. Now, don’t get it twisted, that’s a losing argument on the whole.

However, one great way to speed up the game and make it more exciting is to make each AB matter.

The normalization of Interleague Play in MLB means that the designated hitter rule should be uniform across both leagues. That claim is bolstered by the fact that average Major League pitchers are terrible hitters, and most teams show little interest in insisting their pitchers demonstrate even a modicum of competence handling the bat.

So, the combination of the fact that sacrifice bunting is almost never the statistically sound choice, and the overall lack of skills from pitchers handling the bat means the absence of the designated hitter in the National League forces teams into the least statistically desirable option.

Andohbytheway, that also happens be the least interesting option for baseball fans.

Implement the DH in the National League, and afford managers the opportunity to make the most statistically sound decisions for their clubs without making the choice for them.

Making pitchers bat for themselves unduly forces NL skippers into choosing the least statistically sound option, which also happens to be the least interesting outcome for fans.

A classic lose-lose situation.

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