Best Bunts of 2013

Everyone understands that not all bunts are a bad idea, right? The auto-sacrifice has (I think) mostly fallen out of favor with fans and teams, but as a nice illustration of sabermetrics’ infinite task, the analysis of bunts continues to evolve. The bunt as a piece of traditional baseball strategy was (and in some circles, continues to be) a target for early sabermetric analyses. But as the field grew more sophisticated, the analysis grew more subtle: a bunt may or may not be a good idea depending on the base/out/game situation, the skill of the bunter, and the position of the fielders.

A more sophisticated analyzing which bunts represent the best process (as opposed to results) would take, well, days of searching through game logs. Analyzing which bunts were the best executed would be an even more onerous burden. For this particular annual tradition, I have chosen the much simpler task of which bunts of the 2013 regular had the best result as measured by Win Probability Added.

WPA is a nice “story stat,” as one can read by following the link to the library given above, and is fine to use for things like this as long as one does not read too much into it. It does help us understand the impact of an event given the game situation (including relative score, inning, and base/out state), which is an important situation given that strategy matters for a bunt. As noted above, ideally we also need to consider issues such as the skill of the bunter and position of the fielders. This is more of a fun reminder about the impact bunts (sacrifice or otherwise) can have.

I used to do this simply taking ranking the top few bunts by WPA, but that approach tended to end up with the same sort of play (errors fielding the bunt) at the top of the list. So I have started using a few different categories — they are a bit different this year because some results subsumed others. Enjoy!

Best Overall Bunt

September 29

The September 29 contest between the Brewers and Mets, the last game of the season for both teams, was not exactly the most significant of the season. Eric Young, Jr. finished the year by leading the National League with 46 steals (and stole two bases in the first inning), which was nice for the Brewers given the year they had. Like the Brewers, the Mets finished more than 20 games out of their division, but not only did they win the game, they also had the Best Bunt of 2013.

Jon Niese and (especially) Marco Estrada each had nice starts for their teams, but the Mets went to their bullpen first. By the eighth, both teams had gone to their bullpens, though. In the bottom of the inning, the Brewers were winning 2-1 and had Brandon Kintzler on the mound, Kintzler may not have delivered the strikeouts, but he was hardly the first person to blame for what followed. Juan Lagares led off the inning by hitting a grounder to shortstop Jeff Bianchi, who made an error that allowed Lagares onto first base. That was hardly a fatal error, but then Juan Centeno came to the plate.

Centeno, the Mets’ catcher was not exactly a threat. He had made his first major-league plate appearances on September 18, and would finish the season with just 10. Centeno understandably laid down a bunt in front of home plate, and then things got messy. The Brewers had trouble covering first base, and their normally sure-handed catcher Jonathan LuCroy threw the ball into right field, which allowed Lagares to score and tie the game. The Mets would go on to take the lead for good after another sacrifice bunt and a ground out scored their third run, but it was Centeno’s bunt (scored a hit and an error, rightly or wrongly) that had the biggest WPA of the game at .372, and was by that same measure the Best Bunt of 2013. Not bad for an unheralded rookie, even if it was not quite as cool as being the first catcher to throw out Billy Hamilton in the majors.

Best Bunt for a Hit Without an Error

The Giants and Phillies also had disappointing seasons, although their expectations were higher than that of the Mets and Brewers. By August 1, both teams were pretty much out of it, or close to it. Despite down years for both starting pitchers (relative to their prior standards), I suspect few baseball fans would object to watchignj a game featuring Matt Cain and Cole Hamels. Neither disappointed, with Cain going eight innings, striking out seven, and allowing one run, and Hamels going eight, striking out five and allowing no runs. So the Phillies won, right?

Well, no. In the top of the ninth, Jonathan Papelbon came in to close for Philadelphia with the Phillies up 1-0. He promptly allowed four consecutive singles to Hunter Pence, Brett Pill, Roger Kieschnick, and Joaquin Arias, leading to two runs and a Giants lead. Papelbon managed to get out of the inning without any more damage, and the Giants still had a chance against Sergio Romo. Things started out promisingly enough, as Delmon Young reached first on an error. The Phillies sent John McDonald in to run for Young (who had himself been a pinch-hitter), and Cody Asche, the Phillies’ ostensible third baseman of the future, laid down a bunt. It was an attempt at a sacrifice, and Romo actually fielded it, but could not keep his footing. Asche got credit for his first major league hit (hey, talk to the official scorer) for some reason and .185 WPA. Despite all of that, the Phillies’ offense fizzled, and they Giants won 2-1.

Best Sacrifice Bunt

Speaking of disappointing teams… well, I am not sure if the Yankees ended up being that disappointing, but the Blue Jays sure did, and it started early on. And this play from their April 20 game played its part.

Both the Jays’ Mark Buehrle and the Yankees’ Hiroki Kuroda pitched well, but this game, like the others, came down the bullpens. New York was up 3-0 in the bottom of the eighth, but Toronto managed to score three runs off of the usually-excellent David Robertson and the game eventually went into extra innings. In the top of the eleventh, the Jays sent Aaron Loup out for his second inning of work. Loup gave up singles to Vernon Wells (remember his hot streak at the beginning of the year? Me neither.) and Francisco Cervelli, which brought Ichiro Suzuki to the plate.

Ichiro had the worst season of his career in the majors in 2013, but this plate appearance was big. He bunted, and in a play that summarized much of Toronto’s season, Loup did not realize that third baseman Brett Lawrie was charging and out of position, and the pitcher threw the ball away, allowing both Wells and Cervelli to score (.246 WPA). Those ended up being the Yankees’ winning runs.

Best Sacrifice Bunt Without an Error

Logan Schafer‘s first extended look in the majors in 2013 (337 plate appearances, he had just 25 in 2012) with the Brewers did not go too well: .211/.279/.322 (65 wRC+). He is 27 now and outside of a AAA hot streak back in 2011, never exactly dominated the high minors. He did, however, provide at least one bright spot for the Brewers on September 17 versus the Cubs.

Marco Estrada again shows up as a starting pitcher in one of these games, and if this one was not quite as dominant as the other (allowing three runs, including a home run, over seven innings) it was nothing to sneeze at (seven strikeouts). Jeff Samardzija had a similar outing for the Cubs (eight strikeouts, three runs and a homer over seven innings). Once the bullpens came in, scoring ceased until the bottom of the ninth.

With the game tied at three, Justin Grimm came in for the Cubs. Things did not go well for Grimm, as he walked Amaris Ramirez, allowed a single to Carlos Gomez, then made a fielding error to allow Scooter Gennett to get on and load the bases. Grimm did manage to get Caleb Gindl to fly out, so at least the double play was theoretically in order. It did not work out that way. Schafer came into the game as a pinch-hitter, and got the sign for the suicide squeeze. It was a bit risky with the bases loaded, but the slow roller was enough to score the Jeff Bianchi (who pinch-ran for Ramirez), .168 WPA, and the walk-off win.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Persona non grata
Persona non grata

Eric Young, Jr. finished the year by leading the National League with 46 steals (and stole two bases in the first inning), which was nice for the Brewers given the year they had.

This sentence gives the impression that EYJ is a member of the Brewers instead of the Mets.



Papelbon managed to get out of the inning without any more damage, and the Giants still had a chance against Sergio Romo.

gives the impression Romo is a member of the Phillies :)