Oakland first baseman Daric Barton is having a nice season under the radar, hitting for a .360 wOBA (.283/.390/.418) and playing good defense. It’s not a superstar performance, and a good OBP with little power and fielding, especially at first base, aren’t going to get him a lot of national publicity, but it is valuable nonetheless.
Something about Barton’s 2010 has caught the eye of someone outside of Oakland, however: his nine sacrifice bunts. It begins with this article by Susan Slusser, in which not only were Barton’s bunts discussed, but praised, as it turns out he’s doing it “on his own.” It is part of a typical “prospect finally living up his potential’ piece for a local paper, but it was Joe Posnanski who declared this excitement over Barton’s (praised, if uncommanded) bunts The Day Moneyball Died. Rob Neyer offered a half-hearted defense of Oakland General Manager Billy Beane‘s seeming acquiescence to this tactic as perhaps Beane wanting to “zag” when everyone else was “zigging.”
I have no idea what is going on, or even if it is significant. Maybe Barton is engaging in a little game theory, given that he hasn’t shown a great deal of power yet, and is trying to get the infielders to further play in against him. That is a bald speculation, however, and Barton is not much of a groundball hitter (which bodes well for his future power potential, of course). And while sacrifice attempts sometimes increase run expectancy during a plate appearance, it looks like Barton is “succeeding” far too often for that to be the plan.
Perhaps Barton has taken on some other wisdom from sabermetrics and is actually in situations where a bunt increases win probability (WPA) and/or run expectancy based on the base/out state (RE24). Well, FanGraphs has the tools to find out, so we’ll go to the play-by-play logs.
April 11 vs. the Angels, Barton bunted twice. The first time was in the first inning with one and one out. The WPA for the plate appearance was -0.017 and the RE24 was -0.22. The second time was in the eighth inning, in a near-identical situation: Rajai Davis got on first, stole second, and Barton bunted. Barton’s WPA was -0.010, the RE24 was again -0.22.
April 17 vs. the Orioles, Barton again bunted Rajai Davis over from second to third. WPA: -.010, RE24: -0.19.
May 15 vs. Angels, Barton again bunts Pennington from second to third with none out in the first innging. WPA: -0.17, RE24: -0.22.
May 23 vs. Giants, eighth inning, none out, Barton sacrifices Rajai Davis from first to second in a 1-0 game. WPA: -0.007, RE24 -0.21.
May 26 vs. Orioles, Barton moves Davis over to second with a first inning, no out bunt. WPA: -0.019, RE24: -0.23.
May 28 vs. Tigers, Barton bunts Davis from second to third with none out. WPA: -0.015, RE24: -0.19.
From the standpoint of straight up run expectancy based on base/out states (RE24), all of these bunts are obviously bad ideas. Of course, it is well known that in certain game states sacrifice bunts can increase win expectancy, and the point of the game is to win, after all. Yet in not a single case did Barton make the right decision. The first inning bunts with none out are especially atrocious, of course. I realize there is a chance for a sacrifice fly when moving a runner from second to third, but it’s pretty funny when it’s Rajai Davis — there’s a guy who need the extra help getting home on a single!
But even late in the close game of May 23, with the As up 1-0 on the Giants, when one might think adding “just one” in the eighth could be a good idea, the WPA for Barton’s sacrifice was negative (if ever so slightly) at -0.007. So even the “best” of Barton’s bunts was a bad idea.
Daric Barton is helping the As this season at the plate and in the field. Maybe he’s playing games with the infielders. But while some might hail his play as the Right Way and a lack of selfishness for a good young hitter, the primary thing he’s been sacrificing (against his intentions) is Oakland’s chances to win games.