In the eighth inning of tonight’s game, Starling Marte led off with a bunt single. The score was tied 2-2, and if the Pirates scored a run they would be able to turn to Mark Melancon for the save in the top of the ninth. The Diamondbacks kept left-hander Wade Miley in to face Jordy Mercer, with Andrew McCutchen on deck and Russell Martin in the hole. Predictably, the Pirates bunted Starling Marte over to second, which led to an intentional walk to McCutchen. Russell Martin then struck out and Marte was thrown out trying to steal third, ending the inning.
Clint Hurdle said that he did this to give both Russell Martin and Pedro Alvarez a chance to bring in the run from second. If you go off the run expectancy matrix, then having runners at first and second with one out is more likely to give you a run than a runner at first with no outs. But in this particular situation, that strategy doesn’t make sense. Here are a few reasons why.
1. Starling Marte has a ton of speed. An extra base hit scores him from first. A single puts him on third easily with no outs, giving McCutchen and Martin a chance each to bring him in with a sacrifice fly or better.
2. Jordy Mercer is crushing lefties this year, and was already 2-for-3 with a double against Miley today. There’s very little reason to have Mercer bunt in that situation with Miley on the mound. The worst possible thing to happen is Mercer grounds into a double play to bring up McCutchen with no one on and two outs.
3. By bunting Mercer, you remove the bat from Andrew McCutchen’s hands. There’s no reason to pitch to him with first base open. They might still walk McCutchen if Mercer gets an out and leaves Marte at first. But at least you give Mercer a chance to continue hitting Miley. This scenario actually happened in the tenth inning, with McCutchen up, a runner on first, and one out. He’s not going to get a hit every time, but I’d rather leave the bat in his hands.
4. The inning was ended with Marte caught stealing third on Martin’s strikeout. But it was pretty much over with Martin’s strikeout. Pedro Alvarez was due up next, with a lefty on the mound. So you’re pretty much relying on Russell Martin to get the key hit. The alternative is letting Mercer hit, possibly leaving the bat in McCutchen’s hands, and then giving Martin a chance. It’s simple math that your odds of something happening are better with three people getting a chance to hit, compared to one person hitting. Also, remember Marte’s speed and the fact that you don’t need him on second to score him.
In most situations, it might make sense to bunt the runner over and try for the one run. However, this doesn’t make sense in every situation. This is one of those situations where bunting the runner makes no sense. You’re taking the bat out of a hitter who had already been successful against the opposing pitcher twice that day. By having Mercer bunt, you’re also taking the bat out of your best hitter’s hands. Then you’re relying on Russell Martin, who has a .252 average, and Pedro Alvarez, who can’t hit lefties, to come through with the hit.
Mercer and McCutchen clearly are the better bats in this situation. With Marte’s speed, you don’t need to bunt him over. A gap shot scores him. If Mercer and McCutchen both fail, you still give Martin a chance to score Marte. It’s just basic math at work here. The more chances you have, the better the odds that you’re going to be successful. By bunting Mercer you’re not only reducing your chances, but you’re also ruining your best chances by taking the bat out of the hands of your two best options in that situation.
If this was a one time thing, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. If it was an occasional thing, it might not be so bad. But this is something that seems like it happens once a week. In fact, twice this week the Pirates have done this exact move, and have taken the bat out of Andrew McCutchen’s hands. It’s not a guarantee that the Pirates would have come away with a better result in those situations. They just would have had a better chance. And with the offense struggling to score runs, and the team needing to win close games, bunting away the best chance of scoring runs is a mistake the Pirates can’t afford to make.
Links and Notes
**The latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast is out: P3 Episode 17: The Pirates Issues With RISP, Platoons, and Small Ball.