Most readers of FanGraphs probably understand that as a strategy for scoring runs, bunting is usually a bad idea. There are times when bunting is appropriate: whether for purposes of “game theory” (getting the infield to play further in) or, in certain game situations, to play for the win rather than for overall run expectancy. In other words, while bunts are mostly a bad idea for increasing run expectancy, they can sometimes be a good idea for increasing Win Probability (WPA).
Even with that in mind, it doesn’t seem that teams are exactly getting the message (case in point). In 2010, our data shows that there were 2988 bunts executed, but only 823 of them (just under 28%) resulted in a positive WPA. That number is probably a bit skewed because it doesn’t include bunt attempts that fail (fouled off, etc.), but it does give the general idea. All that being said, bunts do sometimes “work,” so let’s take a look at the 2010’s five most successful bunts as measured by WPA.
5. A.J. Ellis‘ sacrifice bunt that resulted in an error and two runs scored for .268 WPA, putting the Dodgers ahead in the ninth inning on route to their 6-3 win over the hapless Astros on September 12. With runners on first and second and no outs, it doesn’t sound like Ellis was trying to do more than get the runners over (the Dodgers going to pinch-hit for the upcoming pitcher’s spot, and did). But this is why (on rare occasions) bunts work out much better than one would expect, as we’ll see…
4. Craig Counsell‘s walk-off sacrifice bunt for .282 WPA to win it for the Brewers against the Cubs on June 10. It is sad that the best player of our time is going to have to share playing time with Yuniesky Betancourt next season. In the meantime, Counsell’s millions of fans everywhere will always be able to treasure this special moment. Well, mostly it was special because Carlos Gomez is so fast that he was able to go first to third on the bunt, then went home when Xavier Nady‘s throw to third was off-target. But still, Craig Counsell!
3. Howie Kendrick‘s wacky, game-winning ‘bunt fly’ single for .371 WPA to give the Angels a 4-3 walk-off win again Cleveland on April 28. With the game tied, two outs, and runners at the corners, Kendrick said he noticed the infield was playing back. Still, to me this ‘bunt fly’ (in the words of the play log) doesn’t look exactly like what one would want to do. Hey, whatever works.
2. Adam Jones‘ game-winning bunt single for .373 WPA to end the Orioles’ 5-4 extra-innings victory over the Mariners on August 16. What is especially stunning here is that the Orioles had two outs at the time in a tie game. After Nick Markakis‘ leadoff double, Ty Wigginton advanced him to third on a grounder, but Corey Patterson couldn’t do anything with one out. Jones had an up-and-down season in 2010 and hasn’t yet met expectations for stardom, but on this day he noticed that Mariners third baseman Jose Lopez was playing him back, and Jones managed to execute the squeeze for the win.
1. Adam Wainwright‘s bunt for .403 WPA on Aaron Heilman‘s error in the Cardinals’ June 28 6-5 win over the Diamondbacks on June 28. With no outs in the top of the ninth, the Cardinals were down 4-5. After Yadier Molina (!) and Brendan Ryan (!!) singles to put them on first and second, Wainwright came to the plate and bunted. Heilman fielded the ball but threw poorly to third, scoring the pinch-running Jaime Garcia (ah, Tony La Russa) to tie the game and moving Ryan and Heilman to second and third. A big play on an error, but actually not the biggest WPA play of the game. That play would be Skip Schumaker‘s (!!!) game-winning single to win the game later than inning.
Keep in mind that these were the most successful bunts of the season, and that five plays doesn’t tell us anything of general significance about bunting as a strategy. Still, it is interesting to note that four of the plays involved errors, and two of them involved the bunter noticing the infields playing back.