The Three Best Bunts of 2011

By now most baseball fans realize that the majority of bunts decrease the bunting team’s run-scoring. However, we also know that bunting also makes sense in some situations, even for non-pitchers who can hit a little bit. It makes sense from the standpoint of game theory (keeping the fielders honest), can increase run expectancy in some situations, and in some situations in close games, it is better to play for just one run. As I did after last season, I would like to look at the three most successful bunts of the 2011 regular season as measured by Win Probability Added (WPA).

Teams probably still bunt too much. On my query, of the 3209 bunts in 2011, only 936 (28.9 percent) resulted in a positive WPA. After excluding pitcher bunts, the figures are a little better: 844 of 2380 bunts (35.5 percent) resulted in a positive WPA. (I may have missed a few bunt attempts that failed and were coded differently, but this is close enough to make the general point.) However, it is important to keep in mind that strategy and “game theory” can come together, as it is not just an issue of whether or not the runner can get on, or whether or not it is the right time to give up an out. Bunts are not easy to field, and this adds to their value, as we can see from the results of the most successful (even if in ways that the bunter and his manager’s did not expect) bunts of 2011. I suspect these were not the three most technically or strategically (prior to finding out the results) best bunts of the season, but they were the three that did the most to help the bunting team win.

3. The third-most successful bunt of the 2011 season was Nyjer Morgan‘s bunt single (plus an error on Todd Helton) with the bases loaded that scored two runs for the Brewers versus the Rockies on July 16:.272 WPA. Somewhat surprisingly for those who have looked at a lot of WPA logs, this was not in the ninth inning, but in the seventh with one out. Other than a bad third inning (which went downhill after… wait for it… a run-scoring error), Zack Greinke performed well against the Rockies, striking out eight over six innings). But the three runs from the third meant that the Rockies were still up 3-2 going into the seventh. Rockies pitchers Jhoulys Chacin then had a rough inning of his own. After giving up consecutive singles to Josh Wilson and Jonathan Lucroy and a sacrifice bunt to Craig Counsell (itself worth -.009 WPA), Chacin hit Corey Hart to load the bases. Mark Reynolds came in for Chacin, who then fell victim to Morgan’s surprise bunt. Helton tried to get the runner at home but airmailed it over the head of Dan O’Dowd’s favorite player, Chris Iannetta, which scored another run and put the Brewers head for the first time, 4-3. It was a big play, but was not actually the biggest WPA shift of the game. The game went back and forth right to the end. Rickie Weeks‘ two-run homer in the nine inning won the game for the Brewers (.477 WPA), but Helton also had a big hit in the bottom of that inning to bring the Rockies within one.


2. On August 20, Hank Conger, the heir apparent to Mike Napoli‘s throne in Anaheim, reached on a sacrifice bunt that Orioles third baseman Josh Bell threw away, bringing the Angels within one in the bottom of the twelfth inning: .343 WPA. It was an exciting extra-innings affair in Anaheim, as the game had been deadlocked since Matt Wieters‘ RBI single in the eighth. In the top of the twelth, Adam Jones put the Orioles ahead with a single, which, accompanied by an error by the Angels, scored two. Baltimore team president manager Buck Showalter brought in legendary closer Kevin Gregg to finish the Angels off in the bottom of the inning. An Erick Aybar single followed by (in a running theme so far) a beaning of Mike Trout, and then Conger’s moment arrived. This did not actually win the game for the Angels, it only brought them within one. It would take a single, a walk, and a sacrifice fly for the Angels to win the game. Conger’s bunt into an error and run was, however, the Angel’s biggest gain in WPA for the game, not just for the run, but for getting runners on first and third.


1. On May 17, with the Reds down 5-3 to the Cubs in top of the eighth, runners on first and second, and none out, Ryan Hanigan tried to sacrifice bunt. He did not succeed… at least not in making an out. Pitcher Kerry Wood fielded the ball and tried to start a third-to-first double play, but his throw to third went wide, and two runs scored, tying up the game. The Reds went up for good when Chris Heisey, the next hitter, scored Hanigan on a sacrifice fly. The Reds actually scored their first three runs of the day on an error as well, when Edinson Volquez, of all people reached on error with the bases loaded. However, Hanigan’s play was actually the biggest WPA swing of the day and the “best” bunt of the year at .456.




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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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Matt in Toledo
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Matt in Toledo
4 years 9 months ago

I went to a lot of games this year, and from all the cries for and applauds of bunts, I would question whether a majority of baseball fans realize bunting usually decreases run-scoring or run expectancy. Please don’t mistake this for a “you got to get out and go to the games” comment. I’m just saying the idea of the bunt as selfless double play preventer is pretty hard to crack.

I tried, though. I remember during the playoffs somebody on the Tigers – Santiago, maybe – tried and failed to get a bunt down. “Why is he bunting?” I asked after both of his failed attempts. “Gotta move up those runners.” was multiple neigboring fans’ reply. Well, the same hitter then laced a single with two strikes and as we all applauded, I looked around and yelled, “That’s why you don’t bunt!” as I high-fived those same fans. I usually try not to be that annoying, but this was the playoffs, dammit.

ChrisR
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ChrisR
4 years 9 months ago

Well, I say double plays and triple plays decrease run expectancy more than sac bunts, so count me as one who is totally against this revolution against bunting.

It seems to me that people are OK with making multiple outs on one pitch now. Doesn’t make sense to me.

williams .482
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williams .482
4 years 9 months ago

the bunter guarantees an out (if the bunt works). then, all the next batter has to do is get just himself out, and ta-da! Same effect.

It is not “people are okay with making multiple outs on one pitch.” What you are advocating is called “playing not to loose.” Yes, double plays are bad. But they are also unlikely, to the point that bunting someone over just to avoid the double play is far co costly to be worthwhile. A manager who bunts to avoid the double play is like someone buying insurance on a car, and paying far, far more than the car is worth for it. It seems “safe,” but it is a lousy return on investment.

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas
4 years 9 months ago

Isn’t it entirely situational? If you have a runner on 1st who’s super slow and less than 2 outs and you have a 75% GB and a GB pitcher and the guy on deck is hot, doesn’t that make sense to bunt? I’m sure aggregately (is that a word?) it’s not a good idea to bunt, but I’m sure there are lots of examples where it would be. Even stuff like a slow footed 3B, sending the runner in motion. Or even doing it with 0 outs as opposed to 1should factor in.

Aaron (UK)
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Aaron (UK)
4 years 9 months ago

How about bunts without error? Or even actual sacrifice bunts?

These examples are interesting but are a little like highlighting the best popflies of 2011 – i.e. the ones that weren’t caught!

Jeff
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Jeff
4 years 9 months ago

I like the premise of this post, but I don’t think an attempt at safely reaching base on a bunt attempt (assuming Nyjer Morgan was trying to reach base) should count. If the batter is trying to safely reach base that throws run expectancy out the window. He’s trying to get a base hit just like any other batter in that situation.

williams .482
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williams .482
4 years 9 months ago

It was Nyjer Morgan, for crying out loud. I don’t think he knew what he was trying to do.

Corey
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Corey
4 years 9 months ago

Noticing a trend here, pretty simple proposition. When the defense blows the play in a clutch situation it dramatically changes win probability. I think we all knew that already, how about bunts that did not result in errors? Or even bunts that resulted, as planned, in outs?

TP Baseball
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TP Baseball
4 years 9 months ago

Perhaps an interesting question that should be addressed by the author isn’t what are the 3 biggest-impact bunts of the season, but rather, has bunting developed a bad name because of the assumption that a sacrifice is required. Based purely on your three examples and on my memory, I would venture a guess that bunts result in bungled defensive efforts far more frequently than, say, a regular groundout, or certainly a flyout. In fact, is there a play in baseball which results in an error, or to speak more generally, in a defensive failure more frequently?

Following this logic through, let’s suppose that in 10% of bunts a failure by the defensive team leads to an error and an extra base for all runners. Weighing this against the other 90% of bunts which simply result in an out and an advance of the bases by the other runner(s), we’re likely to see that our expected outcome from a bunt is a little more favourable.

Lacking the comprehensive database of these bunts, I can only speak in terms of what COULD be shown by the numbers, but I’d be very interested to see if such an adjustment might alter the traditional sabermetric view on bunts as a tool in the game.

Jeff
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Jeff
4 years 9 months ago

Assuming “productive outs” (those which increase WPA for the batting team) are rare, isn’t league-average OBP the relevant comparison here?

(Essentially, I’m assuming that WPA increases if the batter reaches base and decreases if he makes an out. Run-scoring sac flies would violate this assumption but if you can score a run with any ball hit to the outfield, why bunt?)

So, in our sample of non-pitcher-hitting bunts, if the batters all took a business-as-usual approach, I would expect that WPA would be positive roughly 32% of the time (league-average OBP) instead of the 35.5% of bunts which were successful.

Note that even if the above is true, it doesn’t necessarily prove that bunting is a *good* idea–you’re pretty well taking the 3-run homer out of the list of possible outcomes by ordering a bunt, for example.

shamus
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shamus
4 years 9 months ago

well the last paragraph is key: the results of the 32% of the time that a player is reaching base are going to be much better WPA-wise than a successful bunt. The fact that league-average OBP is so close to the percent of successful bunts is partial evidence that bunting is generally inferior to trying to get on base. Recording an out will be worse than most “unsuccessful” bunts, but in most situations I’m sure that difference is much smaller than the difference between the average positive results of reaching base vs. successfully bunting.

Brian S.
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Brian S.
4 years 9 months ago

I wonder what the three best “sacrifice” bunts were in 2011. I have no problem at all with bunting for a hit, it’s the giving away free outs that bugs the hell out of me.

delv
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delv
4 years 9 months ago

“By now most baseball fans realize that the majority of bunts decrease the bunting team’s run-scoring.” I don’t think so, Matt. You’ve been running in SABR-circles for too long.

chris
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chris
4 years 9 months ago

I fail to believe that a Fredi Gonzalez ordered bunt didn’t crack the top 3. The law of averages would say he had at least a 50% chance, since I think he ordered most of the leagues bunts.

Joe
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Joe
4 years 9 months ago

I disagree that all this WPA gets attributed to the bunt. This article could be more accurately names the 3 biggest errors on bunts in 2011.

Subtle
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Subtle
4 years 9 months ago

I actually wrote a blog post about that Kerry Wood error after that game and the lack of fundamentals the Cubs seemed to showcase in that game and throughout the season. The cubs were throwing the ball all over the place this year in all the wrong situations.

sindarta
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sindarta
4 years 9 months ago

Well, if you look at the run expectancies depending on the number of outs and the runners on base you will see that trading an out for a base is almost always a bad idea. For instance with a runner on 1st and no outs the run probability is .953, with one out and a runner on 2nd (so a successful sacrifice bunt) this probability is .725. Unless in situations where a double play is very likely, e.g. slow baserunner on 1st, groundball pitcher, very bad hitter that is striking out a lot, then bunting is not a good idea.

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