I stumbled on this post at Chronicles of the Lads, a Los Angeles Angeles blog, while perusing the work of Tom Tango (a sabermetrician associated with the Marcels projections). Tom talked in mathspeak before coming to the conclusion that “All-in-all, its likely that the Angels’ bunting was a wash.” I thought to myself, “Self: This could be directly related to that post you made about the 2007 batting order. You should look into this bunting business.” So that’s what I did.
For those of you who won’t open the links, the Angels blogger wanted to study the way Mike Scioscia plays small ball–and more specifically, how a (successful) sacrifice bunt could affect the team. He used the Baseball-Reference Play Index to compile some stats. His methodology was complex, and he drew strong conclusions. It was a good read.
I wanted to go a different route, though. I’m less concerned with whether or not bunting is a solid strategy as a whole than I am with how it affected the Pirates. I also didn’t want to only look for bunts that were ruled as sacrifices: I wanted to see failed bunts and bunts for base hits in sacrifice situations. I defined that sacrifice situation to be a bunt that occurs with runner(s) on base and less than two outs: From here on out, that is referred to as the “situation.”
I looked at the B-R Play Index for data, and I didn’t like what I found. Ever the studious stathead, I headed over to Retrosheet and dug through the play-by-play accounts for all 162 games the Pirates played in 2006. I got out a legal pad, and I tallied:
–The date of the game and the opposing team
–Any bunts the opponent made in the “situation”
–For the Pirates: Who was bunting, and what inning it was
–Whether or not he laid down a successful bunt (unsuccessful bunts failed to advance the baserunners and/or resulted in multiple outs)
At the time of the bunt, I noted:
–Whether the Pirates were winning, losing or tied
–The difference in score (close game or not, with close defined as three runs or less)
–How many outs there were pre-bunt (zero or one)
–The result of the play (where the baserunners ended up)
–Whether or not the Pirates scored after the bunt (not necessarily as a result of the bunt)
–If they did, who drove in the run(s)
–Whether or not a big inning occurred as a result of the bunt (with a big inning defined as having multiple runs and/or a run scored after the eighth inning of a close game)
After successful bunts, I also made a note of whether or not the Pirates won the game. When I was done, I counted. Here’s what I came up with.
The Pirates attempted to use the sacrifice bunt 90 times in 2006. (That total only includes “situations” that would show up in the box score–“situations” where the bunt was put on for a pitch or two and pulled off are not included. Similarly, Juan Pierre-like drag-bunt base hits aren’t included unless they occurred in the “situation.”) The Pirates’ opponents bunted 146 times. That breaks down to 1.34 bunts per win for the Bucs, 1.53 bunts per win for the enemies. Houston tried 22 bunts against the Pirates. Cincinnati (11), Chicago (16), Milwaukee (14) and St. Louis (15)–the other NL Central teams–rounded out the top five. The Braves (9) were the leaders outside of the division.
Tracy’s Pirates distributed bunts fairly evenly over the course of a game. The most popular inning for sacrifices was the third (often the first time the starting pitcher comes to the plate). Broken down, it’s first (6), second (9), third (14), fourth (12), fifth (12), sixth (7), seventh (8), eighth (11), ninth (7), extras (4).
The Bucs bunted a little more often in the second half of the season than they did in the first; I think you can attribute that to their winning more games after the All-Star break. When you’re getting your head bashed in (like April-June), you can’t afford to give up outs. By month, it was April (11), May (18), June (10), July (17), August (20), September (14), October (0). MLB.com allows you to sort its standings by date if you care to correlate those numbers with month-by-month records.
By my count, 23 Pirates put balls in play in “situations” via a bunt in 2006. Remember what Jason Bay said about Jack Wilson when he was talking about the batting order?
“…Then you’ve got Freddy bunting and slapping balls to right field.”
Bay pointed to Wilson nearby.
“That’s how he hits. That’s what he’s made for.”
Well, our All-Star left fielder was right. Jack led the team with 17 bunts in the kind of “situations” we’re talking about–and that doesn’t include the times that he tried to bunt for a base hit with no one on base or with two outs in an inning. Zach Duke and Ian Snell both tried 12 bunts. Victor Santos, now with the Reds, tried seven. No one else laid down more than four.
What if I told you the Pirates failed their bunts nearly 17% of the time with runner(s) on base and less than two outs? Would you be surprised? Probably not. Here were the guys that need to go back to Little League to work on fundamentals:
–Zach Duke failed three bunts out of 12 attempts
–Ian Snell, 2/12
–Jack Wilson, 2/17
–Ryan Vogelsong, 1/1
–Jose Castillo, Ronny Paulino, Xavier Nady, 1/2
–Paul Maholm, Jose Hernandez, 1/3
–Jose Bautista, 1/4
–Victor Santos, 1/7
The “perfect” bunters: Oliver Perez (two attempts), Tom Gorzelanny (2), Shawn Chacon (2), Chris Duffy (4), Freddy Sanchez (4), Ryan Doumit (1), Nate McLouth (4), Mike Edwards (1), Kip Wells (1), Humberto Cota (1), Joe Randa (2) and Rajai Davis (1).
The Bucs bunted 90 times in the “situations.” They scored 41 times–that’s 45.5%. Of those 41 scores, 16 led to a big inning. If you don’t have a calculator, 16/41=39%, and 16/90=17.8%. They won 30 of the games that involved scoring as a result of a bunt in a “situation” (30/41=73.2%).
To put that in English, in games when the Pirates laid down a sacrifice that led to a run, they won 73.2% of the time. That seems like a good stat, but I can’t put it in context for you.
The big innings usually occurred when runners were moved into scoring position for Sanchez and Bay. Chris Duffy wasn’t Alfonso Soriano at the top of the order: Rarely did a big inning result from a pitcher putting a runner on second for Duffy.
The Tendencies, Finally
So when did Jim like to bunt, anyway? Were there any obvious trends? (Of course there were.)
–He let Jack bunt just about any time he pleased–“situation” or not, bases empty, two outs, etc. He’s good with the bat, and he’s got a little bit of speed. You won’t confuse him with Rickey Henderson, but it’s clear that Jack’s the type of player that relies on bunting heavily as an offensive tool.
–Tracy called for the bunt almost every time there were runners on first and second and no one out. It didn’t matter what inning it was or what the score was. Granted, he didn’t ask Jason Bay to bunt down 14-0. But Ronny Paulino, Xavier Nady, Joe Randa and others were called on to move two runners into scoring position.
–Skip called for the bunt any time the pitcher came up in the “situation”–not a surprise.
–Ditto for when the lead-off man got on in a close game.
–He didn’t mess around when the lead-off man started an inning with a double. He called for the bunt so as to provide a chance for a sac fly.
There were a few contests that brought back memories as a I sifted through Retrosheet’s PBP. A quick recap:
–May 21st at Cleveland. Ryan Doumit is called on to bunt in the ninth inning of a tied game. He lays it down and reaches on an error, leaving runners on first and second and pinch-hitter Jose Hernandez coming to the plate with no outs. Hernandez fails when the Indians force out the lead runner at third. Jose Castillo grounds into a double play to end the inning. The Bucs lose in 10.
–May 27th vs. Houston. Jack puts down a successful sacrifice in the 11th inning, moving the runner to second with one out and Freddy and Jason due up. They don’t score, so they play seven more innings. The Bucs win in the bottom of the 18th on a football-tackle slide by Bay. Munson still doesn’t know what hit him.
–July 15th vs. Washington. Three position players put down successful sacrifices in a win, including a squeeze by Jack. The Bucs win 7-6.
–August 3rd vs. Atlanta. Xavier Nady comes to the plate after the first three men have reached to start the sixth inning against a tiring Tim Hudson, resulting in one run. It’s the Tracy “situation”–runners on first and second, no one out. Nady lays down a successful sacrifice, but Jose Castillo and Ronny Paulino fail to capitalize with two runners in scoring position. The Pirates win the game 3-2. Who knows, if Nady had swung away they might’ve won 13-2.
–September 4th at Chicago. Duffy and Randa reach base to start the game. The NL batting champ comes to the plate in the top of the first with runners on first and second and no one out. He bunts–of course!–and reaches base. Sacks juiced for Jason Bay, who drives in Duffy with a single. Still loaded for Nady, who empties them quickly with a double. Somehow a passive bunt call in the first inning erupted into a four-run outburst. The Bucs win 5-4.
What Did We Learn?
We saw some cool stats. The Bucs win a lot when they score after a successful sacrifice. Zach Duke and Ian Snell would be the best pinch-hit bunters, probably–not Jose Hernandez (or Mike Edwards, who also was called off the bench just to bunt). Bunting only resulted in a big inning about one every five tries.
We also remembered that Jim Tracy manages by the book. We knew he loved lefty/righty matchups and double switches; now we know that he loves bunting with runners on first and second and no one out–even if it means taking the bat out of the hands of one of his power hitters. Back to the very beginning of the article: Remember when I said that this post would tie in with the one I wrote about the batting order? Well, I think it does.
Jack Wilson should hit #2 because he can bunt (that is, as long as he puts up a respectable OBP). Whether we like it or not, Tracy’s going to make the #2 hitter move Duffy up for the middle of our order. Additionally, Jack’s skills would be wasted in the eighth spot of the order. You take away a huge part of his offensive arsenal if you put him in front of the pitcher. At least if he’s batting second, he’ll set up Freddy, LaRoche and Bay. I suppose it’ll come down to whether or not he can hit .280 or .290. If he can–and if Duffy plays to potential–we might see the return of the Lumber Co.
That’s it. If you’ve read this far, you might be interested in something else I didn’t talk about. I’ve saved all my raw data, so if there’s anything you’re curious about (or any additional computations you’d like to make), feel free to e-mail me at email@example.com.