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.