Joe Maddon’s Bunting Identity Crisis

Two facts, with which you as a FanGraphs reader are likely familiar:

  • The Tampa Bay Rays are among the most sabermetrically-inclined organizations in major league baseball.
  • Sabermetrically-inclined folk generally are against the decision to sacrifice bunt.

One more fact, with which you are less likely to be familiar:

  • The Tampa Bay Rays have attempted 58 non-pitcher sacrifice bunts this season, by far the highest mark in the major leagues. No other team has even 50.


So that’s weird. Since he began leading the Rays in 2006, Joe Maddon has been known as one of the more progressive MLB managers. He does funky things with his lineup. He’s batted the pitcher eighth. He made heavy use of the defensive shift before it was cool. If there was a manager to be considered the posterchild of what a future MLB manager might look like, it has been Joe Maddon.

He’s even spoke out publicly against sac bunting in the past:

“For that group of people out there that want guys to bunt all the time, you don’t know the outcome when you choose to do that,” Maddon said, of choosing not to bunt with two runners on base and no outs in the ninth inning, and again following a leadoff double in the 10th. “I think the bunt is an overrated play.”

Joe Maddon thinks the bunt is an overrated play, yet here we are in the year 2014 and the Rays have bunted more than anyone. Well, attempted to bunt more than anyone. And therein lies the issue with Maddon’s bunting habits this season.

League-wide, the use of sacrifice bunts are trending downwards.

sac2

This makes sense. As more data suggests sacrifice bunting is generally bad, managers will slowly but surely catch on and begin picking their spots wisely. That leads to this:

sac

It seems that MLB managers are picking smarter times to use the sacrifice bunt. League-wide WPA on sac bunts is positive for first time in 10 years and probably longer, though I did not have the patience to continue my research, nor the wherewithal to devise a more efficient method than the one I was employing.

So that’s how the league is adapting with regards to sacrifice bunts. Doing it less often, but doing it more efficiently. Let’s get back to Joe Maddon’s Rays.

As previously stated, the Rays have attempted to bunt more than anyone, with 58 non-pitcher attempts. But they’re not in first in completed sacrifices. Just 35 of those 58 attempts have turned into “successful” sacrifice bunts. I put successful in quotes because we know that, more often than not, a sacrifice bunt even when executed does more harm than good. Despite all of their bunting efforts this season, the Rays sacrifice bunts have amassed a negative WPA. That is to say, all the free outs they’ve given away haven’t really improved their win expectancy at all. It’s hurt them, if anything. To compound the issue, let’s go back to that 35-of-58 number.

35-of-58 yields a 60% success rate. That’s bad. The league average success rate for a sacrifice bunt is 71%. Only five teams have lower success rates on bunts than the Rays this year. All of those teams have attempted at least 11 fewer sac bunts than Tampa. Brandon Guyer is the biggest offender. His 12 sacrifice bunt attempts are second on the team, yet he has only successfully laid down five for a 42% success rate. Desmond Jennings is 9-for-13. Jose Molina is 4-for-6. Yunel Escobar, Kevin Kiermaier and Sean Rodriguez are all 3-for-5. There isn’t a single Rays player who has attempted more than two sacrifice bunts this season that has actually got them down at a league-average rate.

We’re going to get slightly off topic here for a second, but something else caught my eye while doing this research. Two paragraphs above, I presented the fact that the Rays, despite having attempted more sac bunts than anyone, have not executed more sac bunts than anyone. Instead, that title goes to Terry Francona’s Indians, with a league-leading 38 successful sacrifice bunts. The Indians, like the Rays, are known as one of the most progressive organizations in baseball and Francona has a reputation as a progressive manager from his time with the Theo Epstein-led Red Sox who didn’t bunt at all. From 2004-2011, when Francona was at the helm in Boston, the Red Sox bunted just 176 times, 33 fewer than the next-lowest team.

Part of that stems from the fact that the Red Sox had one of the best lineups in baseball during that stretch with a 110 wRC+ and therefore didn’t need to rely on small ball strategy to push runners across the board. Then again, both the Indians (104 wRC+) and Rays (102 wRC+) have top-1o offenses in baseball this season which begs the question of why Joe Maddon and Terry Francona have suddenly fallen in love with the sacrifice bunt?

The Indians have at least bunted well, which is more than the Rays can say, with an 82% success rate that is topped only by the Rangers’ 86%. But all those “successful” sacrifice bunts haven’t yielded a positive WPA for the Indians, either.

To be honest, I really can’t think of a good explanation as to why Maddon and Francona have fallen in love with the sacrifice bunt this year. Both have proven to be anti-bunt in the past and have strong lineups, yet rely on the bunt more than any other manager in baseball seemingly to a fault.

Just for fun, since we’re talking about the Rays and the Indians, what do the bunting habits of the Moneyball A’s look like? Fewest in the league, with just 12. Part of that is due in part to their league-worst 44% success rate, but they’ve also attempted just 24, the sixth-fewest in the MLB.

Three of the teams in the MLB most generally perceived as “progressive” have had unique seasons with regards to the sac bunt this year. The Indians have laid down more sac bunts than any team in baseball, which would appear to be bad on the surface, but at least they’ve been among the most efficient at getting them down. The Athletics have chosen not to sac bunt at all, but part of that is because they’ve just been terrible at it. Then there’s the Rays, who have combined the worst of both worlds, being both terrible at bunting while also attempting them more than anyone. Maybe Joe Maddon should listen to his own advice and concede that the bunt is overrated.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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