Everyone knows that bunting runners over is the key to scoring and winning baseball games! No, wait, it’s dumb, and should never be done! Okay, bunting is sometimes smart, sometimes not. Isn’t sabermetric analysis of strategy great?
Jokes and stereotypes aside, it does seem that discussion of the pros and cons of bunting around the nerd-o-sphere is more nuanced than it used to be. While the allegedly old-school first inning, runner-on-first auto-bunt has fallen out of favor, we also realize that bunting can make sense for a number of reasons in certain situations: keeping fielders honest, increasing run expectancy, and occasions where playing for one run makes sense. As yet another annual tradition, let’s check out some of the most successful bunts of the 2012 regular season as measured by Win Probability Added (WPA).
As one can read in the above link, WPA is not a great stat for measuring individual player value. While it is far from perfect, I do think it does a good job of conveying the story of the game in numerical form, if that makes any sense. It also helps get at the game situation of events, which is particularly important when analyzing a bunt.
Do teams bunts too much? My guess would be that they do, but without a more careful, situation-sensitive examinatoin, it is just a guess. Here are some numbers, although they should not stand in for a complete analysis: of the 2974 total bunts in 2012, 880 (29.6 percent) resulted in a positive WPA. Of the 2144 bunts by non-pitchers, 811 (37.8 percent) resulted in a positive WPA.
At the encouragement of past readers, rather than just going down the list of top bunts by WPA, I am going to break these down into different categories, somewhat arbitrarily chosen by myself. So here are some of the Best Bunts of the 2012 regular season according to Win Probability Added.
Best Overall Bunt
On May 25, the Seattle Mariners’ offensive juggernaut burst out to a nice lead against the Angels. By the sixth inning, Seattle was up 4-0. Justin Smoak (who else?) led the way, driving in runs with a fielder’s choice, a single, and a home run off of future Kansas City Royals ace Ervin Santana. However, in the sixth, Albert Pujols hit a three-run homer to narrow the lead to 4-3.
That was still the score when future Big Dodgers Investment Brandon League took the mound to close out the Angels in the top of the ninth. League, still months away from being Totally Fixed by the Dodgers, allowed a Mark Trumbo single and an Alberto Callaspo walk. With runners on first and second and none out, Erick Aybar came to the plate and bunted. League tried to get the lead runner, but his throw went past third baseman Alex Liddi, Peter Bourjos scored, and runners were on second and third. The game winner actually came when Howie Kendrick pinch-hit later in the inning, but Aybar’s bunt and the accompanying error combined for the bigger play for the Angels and the most game-changing successful bunt of the season at .422 WPA.
Best Bunt for a Hit
On August 6, the Nationals had taken a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning against the hapless Astros. However, Houston scrappily clawed back, and in the bottom of the ninth tied the game at 4-4 when Jose Altuve doubled in Lucas Harrell. The game remained deadlocked until the top of the eleventh. With a Roger Bernadina on first, Kurt Suzuki bunted. While trying to field the ball, pitcher Wilton Lopez and third baseman Thunder Thighs (a.k.a. Brett Wallace) ran into each other, and then Wallace proceeded to throw the ball past the first baseman. It was counted as a hit with a run scored on an error. It was the game-winning run, good for .338 WPA.
Best Bunt for a Hit Without An Error
Heath Bell (a.k.a. “World’s Most Popular Clubhouse Guy”) came onto the field in the ninth inning to protect a 2-0 lead for the Marlins as they faced the Giants on May 2. He proceeded to give up a double to Brandon BELT~!, a run-scoring single to Joaquin Arias, and a single to Buster Posey before being mercifully pulled. Steve Cishek came into the game with the Marlins still clinging to a 2-1 lead with runners on the corners and no one out. He managed to strike out Brett Pill, but then Gregor Blanco laid down a nice bunt to first that Gaby Sanchez could not make a play on, despite fielding it cleanly. That tied the game and was worth .256 WPA. The Marlins did go on to win on Giancarlo Stanton‘s tenth-inning solo home run, despite Blanco’s heroics.
Best Sacrifice Without An Error
Sure, Wilson Valdez put up -1.1 Wins Above Replacement this year, but all that seems pretty silly given his big play on June 8. It was inter-league play against the Tigers at home in Cincinnati, and the Reds had managed to blow their early 4-0 lead. The Tigers had come all the way back and taken a 5-4 in the top of the eighth on a Delmon Young home run (well, duh, Delmon Young is amazing). In the bottom of the inning, the Reds managed to tie it up when Todd Frazier doubled in The Eternal Miguel Cairo (remember that name).
The game was still knotted up at five runs apiece in the bottom of the tenth when Cairo the Undying lead off the Reds’ half of the inning with a triple against Phil Coke, which was shocking because Coke is totally money against right-handed hitters. Coke managed to get Ryan Hanigan to ground out, but then our man Wilson V. stepped up. Apparently all it took was Valdez sending vibes to Cairo or something like that for Cairo to know that Valdez was, on his own, going to lay down an attempted squeeze. The ironically-named Prince Fielder tried to get Cairo out at home (hence this being scored a fielder’s choice), but Cairo beat the throw home and the Reds collected .177 WPA and the win.
Best Bunt Not Involving a Run Scored
Obviously, the previously-discussed events of May 8 deeply scarred the Mariners, and on August 14, they vowed to make up for it. Or something. In the top of the ninth, down 2-1 against the Rays, Kyle Seager lead off the inning by singling against Fernando Rodney. Yeah, that’s right, shutdown closer Fernando Rodney. Still having a hard time accepting that. With Seager on first, Chone Figgins, who may not be much of a player any more but is surely a fan favorite, decided to try and bunt Seager over. Illustrating why attempted sacrifices are often more effective than successful ones, first baseman Carlos Pena fielded the bunt, hesitated while trying to choose which runner to get, then ended up throwing the ball away, anyway, not only leaving both runners safe, but on second and third.
It was Justin Smoak (man, that dude is in here a lot, he must have had an awesome season) who actually drove in the tying run with a sacrifice fly. It was Eric Thames who drove in Figgins with a single to win the game for the Mariners, 3-2. However, the biggest WPA shift of the game was on a play that did not even score a run — Figgins’ bunt, which was good for .413 WPA.
Chone Figgins: a bargain at twice the price.