I’m generally opposed to the sacrifice bunt, except in the rarest of circumstances. This less than optimal strategy is utilized even more in the playoffs. Derek Jeter, the all-time leader in playoff sacrifice bunts with 9, bunts almost twice as frequently in the playoffs as the regular season. That in itself should tell you that managers tend to go bunt-happy in the postseason since Jeter is a career .308/.374/.465 playoff hitter. I used Win Probability Added (WPA) and Run Expectancy (RE) in my calculations. For the record, the sum of Jeter’s sacrifices is -0.13 WPA and -1.88 RE. Anyways, here’s the list of the five worst playoff sacrifice bunts since 2002. Data is provided by Baseball Reference’s Play Index.
5. Daniel Descalso 2012, NLDS, Game 1. The Cardinals were losing to the Nationals 3-2 in the 8th when Descalso came to the plate with Adron Chambers on first and Tyler Clippard on the mound. Descalso laid down a bunt, sending Chambers to second. WPA: -0.04 RE: -0.19. Pete Kozma and Matt Carpenter would be retired, and the Nationals would go on to take Game 1. Descalso would hit two home runs in the series.
4. Eric Bruntlett 2004, NLCS, Game 6. Down 4-3 in the 9th, the Astros pinch-hitter faced Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen with Morgan Ensberg on first and no outs. Bruntlett had 4 home runs and a 111 wRC+ in 61 regular-season PA, but a go-ahead home run was not on manager Phil Garner’s mind. Bruntlett bunted Ensberg to second. WPA: -0.05 RE: -0.21. After Craig Biggio flew out, Jeff Bagwell would deliver a game-tying single, but the Cardinals would eventually win it in the 12th. Though I’m not a fan of judging decisions based on results rather than process, you could say that this decision “worked.”
3. Brad Ausmus 2005, WS, Game 4. The Astros were trailing 1-0 when Jason Lane led off the bottom of the 9th with a single off White Sox closer Bobby Jenks. The 36 year-old catcher had posted a .351 OBP in 2005, one of the best marks of his career. Nevertheless, he sacrificed on the first pitch he saw, moving Lane to second and decreasing the Astros’ chance of scoring. WPA: -0.05 RE: -0.21. Pinch hitters Chris Burke and Orlando Palmeiro would be retired, and the White Sox took game 4 on their way to winning the series.
2. Elvis Andrus, 2010 ALCS, Game 1. The Rangers shortstop came to the plate against Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th inning, with the Rangers trailing 6-5 and Mitch Moreland on first with no outs. With the count at 1-2, Andrus got down a bunt, sending Moreland to second. WPA: -0.06 RE: -0.22. Rivera would strike out Michael Young and get Josh Hamilton to ground out, ending the game. This bunt is even worse than the numbers because of the 1-2 count on Andrus and the fact that there was little to no risk of grounding into a double play, as the speedy Andrus had just 6 GDP in almost 700 PA. I should add that noted lover of bunting Ron Washington was managing the Rangers, who have had the most sacrifice bunts in the AL during his tenure.
1. Danny Espinosa, 2012 NLDS, Game 1. The Nationals were trailing the Cardinals 2-1 in the top of the 8th. With Ian Desmond on first and Michael Morse on third and no outs, Espinosa came to the plate, facing Cardinals reliever Mitchell Boggs. Espinosa was 0-3 on the day with 3 strikeouts. He still had some pop though, as he had 17 home runs on the season. For whatever reason, on an 0-1 count, Espinosa tapped a bunt to Boggs, advancing Desmond to second. WPA: -0.09 RE: -0.44. The next hitter, Kurt Suzuki, would strike out. Fortunately for Espinosa and the Nationals, pinch hitter Tyler Moore would come through with a two-run single, and the Nationals would win the game 3-2.
The sacrifice bunt by a position player is almost universally a negative play, but even in the age when statistical information is readily available and most teams are employing an army of nerds, the tactic refuses to die. Perhaps it’s because “that’s the way the game was played” when many of these managers were players. Or maybe it’s the conservative nature of managers. The players usually get saddled with the blame if an opportunity with runners in scoring position is squandered after a sacrifice bunt. But if a player grounds into a double play when he could have bunted, the manager might be taking the heat. Whatever the case, expect managers to keep ordering the bunt come October.