One Inning, Two Defensible Bunts

Although the “bunt wars” may not rage on, they are at least still simmering. The older, stale debates about whether sacrifice bunts are good strategy or the wastes of outs often miss the point by leaving aside game situation, game theory, the skill of the bunter, and other considerations. Even when such things are taken into account, discussions can get a bit abstract. Concrete examples of bunts and the situations around them can illustrate what complexities are involved in deciding whether a bunt is the right call. So let’s make it concrete: the sixth inning of the Red Sox-Royals game on Saturday provided two bunts worth closer consideration.

With the Royals leading 1-0 in the top of the sixth with none out and a runner on second, the Royals’ Alcides Escobar sacrificed the runner, Alex Gordon, to third base. In the bottom half of the inning, with the score the same, none out, and Jacoby Ellsbury on first base, Shane Victorino bunted him over to second base. We do have some tools that tell us much both the run expectancy given the base/out state (RE24) and Win Probability (WPA) given the overall game state (inning and relative score) changed. These do so at the time the play happens, so they are helpful for these sorts of inquires, which are attempts to evaluate the decision-making process at the time without respect to what happened later. For both bunts, run expectancy and win expectancy went down. On that basis, one might understandably conclude that both bunts, considered in themselves aside from eventual outcome (the Red Sox ended up tying the game that inning, and went on to win), were bad ideas.

Judging from Twitter (scientific survey!), many people thought the same about the bunts. It is easy to understand that side of things, especially since scoring went on beyond the bunts, making the one-run strategies look retrospectively silly. Without providing a definitive answer as to whether one, both, or neither bunts were the right decision, I want to introduce some considerations for each bunt that I hope will make thing a bit more ambiguous.

Escobar’s bunt at the top of the inning might have initially been more infuriating to some, given that there were no outs, Gordon was on second, and the Royals had their two, three and four hitters coming up. Actually, the Royals’ RE24 and WPA were both hurt less by the sacrifice than Victorino’s, but yes, they still went down (Escobar’s bunt was fairly close to even, although still negative: -.014 WPA, -0.21 RE24).

It is important to remember that both WPA and RE24 are relative to the average plate appearance. While Escobar has been about an average hitter since the beginning of last season, given his prior performance and peripherals, both ZiPS and Steamer see his true talent as closer to a .300 wOBA. In addition, he was facing Clay Buchholz, a right-handed pitcher, thus reducing Escobar’s chances for avoiding an out due to platoon considerations. In other words, there were reasons to think that Escobar was not going to have an average or better range of outcomes given typical plate appearance.

While one run is just one run, even late in the game, the Royals had James Shields going well. It might have been a good idea to pull him earlier, but I want to focus just on the decision to bunt in itself. The Royals have a very good bullpen (this might have been a bit more difficult to write on Saturday night, but the Kansas City bullpen came through in outstanding fashion in both parts of Sunday’s doubleheader), so the chances that extending the lead from 1-0 to 2-0 would be more likely to secure win probability than the average.

Yes, the Royals did have the “heart of the order” coming up, but as we have seen, Escobar is probably not a good hitter in the normal sense (but more on this below). Their cleanup hitter on Saturday was Eric Hosmer, who has not exactly been lighting things up. The batter hitting behind Escobar, however, was Billy Butler. With one out and a runner on third, Butler, who has good strike zone judgment and good contact skills (and hits it hard on contact) had a good chance to at least make enough solid enough contact to sacrifice Gordon in for a run.

Butler did make good contact when he got the chance, but just had a bit of bad luck in lining it right to the shortstop. Still, if you are going to have a batter up in a situation in which (obviously) a hit would be great, but a sacrifice would work, too, Butler is probably the best choice in the Royals’ lineup. He would be up with one out after the sacrifice. Hosmer, on the other hand, would likely be coming up with two outs, requiring a hit from him, which at this point is not necessarily a great chance to take, strategically speaking.

Finally, this bunt was not a surefire out. Although Alcides Escobar does not project as a good hitter in the usual sense, he has been very good at bunting. Almost 30 percent of Escobar’s career bunts have gone for hits. Last year year, he was second in baseball with 11 bunts for hits (with a success rate over 40 percent). He came pretty close to getting on when the time came. Escobar showed bunt on the first pitch but did not get one down, so the element of surprise was taken away (first baseman Mike Napoli conferred with the pitcher). Even so, when Escobar did get the bunt down, Buchholz barely managed to throw him out at first. The pitcher almost threw it down the line for an error that would have scored Gordon and perhaps even have put Escobar on second with none out.

None of this ended up working out for the Royals. But again, out or no out, the situation and the particular players (hitters, potential relievers, etc.) involved also should to be taken into account beyond simply what generic run expectancy and win expectancy tables might show.

Let’s briefly take a look at Victorino’s bunt with Ellsbury on first and none out. This cost the Red Sox about as much as a typical out in terms of run expectancy (-.24), but not much in terms of WPA (-.032), even it was negative.

Victorino’s bunt was not obviously the right call, but it is not clear to me that it was a bad one, either. Some of the reasons are similar to those given above about Escobar’s bunt. For example: the Royals could bring in a reliever soon and make the run environment even more restrictive; Pedroia and Ortiz are good enough hitters to finally get Ellsbury in (as they did) if he was in scoring position. With Salvador Perez behind the plate, a steal attempt might have been too dangerous, costing not only an out, but the baserunner. Victorino is not as skilled at bunting for a hit as Escobar, but he does bunt competently. Although Victorino’s platoon issues do not really hurt his overall value significantly (I will leave aside the issue of whether he should hit second versus a right-handed starter), he does hit much worse versus right-handed pitching. Making sure he got Ellsbury over with a bunt rather than having nothing to show for the out also makes some sense.

The Royals ended up not scoring in the inning after the bunt. The Red Sox did, although it is not clear the bunt was necessary (though it probably helped). As it turned out, the biggest events in the game were still to come along with a couple of lead changes. Of course, neither team knew what would happen in later innings.

Were one or both bunts the right choice? I don’t know. Both WPA and RE24 say no, and I would not want people to use this post to dismiss those tools. But they are still just tools, and while they can be helpful without player-specific inputs, they are not the whole story. This post is not intended as a vindication of these two bunts. (It is not meant as a comment on John Farrell and Ned Yost‘s general strategic and tactical chops, either.) But I do think, taking various additional aspects into account, both bunts are at least defensible.

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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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