First Pitch: The Pirates Continue to Bunt Away Their Best Chances

The Pirates need to stop bunting away outs. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates need to stop bunting away outs. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

**Prospect Watch: Jin-De Jhang Homers Twice; Oliver Has a Good Start.

**Pirates Lose 4-2 in 16 Innings as Offense Flounders.

**Pirates Acquire Pitcher Doug Mathis From the Marlins.

**Kris Johnson Called Up to Pirates, Andrew Lambo to Triple-A.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates2 Take Wildcard Lead With Eleventh Straight Win.

**Minor League Schedule: Kingham and Miller Set For Altoona Doubleheader.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • tripleplay24

    Personally I would have bunted Pedro and Andrew Jones when they came to bat in extra innings when the Diamondbacks put that shift on. All they had to do was bunt it down third and they have a hit. one run wins the game there but i agree with not bunting Mercer just because they took the bat out of McCutchen

    • http://www.facebook.com/susanne.klichlangford Susanne Klich Langford

      I went to the game yesterday and got a rare chance to see the Pirates this season because of the Columbus blackout of the Pirates. Glad to see this article as I complained about our RISP and especially the wasting of outs on the 3 hour drive to Pittsburgh, during the game as the out wasting was happening, and also disgusted on the long drive home. Too many managers that still don’t realize that how the game was played in 1978 is not the way it should be played now. There have always been fans who think they can manage better than their team’s coach but in baseball I know that it is true.

      – Fred

  • CalipariFan506

    Garret Jones is absolutely killing the offense in August.

  • Jeff

    Tim
    Hurdle does this all the time. Do you think these failed outcomes will change his strategy?

  • johndw28

    This was just a very poor move by Clint Hurdle. I would like to touch on what another poster mentioned. Garret Jones has been awful in August after being merely bad in May and June. For someone who is terrible against lefties his splits against righties are not enough to hold up his end of the platoon. On top of that he is horrible as far as situational hitting(RISP and runners on base). Justin Morneau is much better in those situations and doesn’t have horrible splits which so easily lets opposing managers dictate matchups- we need someone who hits righties better to platooon with Gaby.

  • buccotime57

    What did you think of the situation where pedro had the leadoff walk and they chose to not have jones bunt him over. Jones who is struggling and pedro who is slow it made sense to me.

  • Andrew

    As long as we are talking about poor strategy/failed outcomes can I ask why is Alvarez in the 5th spot against LHP, let alone batting. I know the need for a platoon has been discussed ad nausem, as Tim wrote above there is no expectation for Alvarez to get a hit against LHP. However, I want to point out the magnitude of this issue, Alvarez now has 112 PAs against LHP, the most on the team and strikes out at a 41% rate. (I know this amount it driven upward by late inning relief match ups)

    For the Pirates to continue to put a batter with a .268 OBP against LHP, behind a two hitter with .452 and .341 OBP and before Sanchez’s .423 is absurd. They realize the problem, Alvarez is dropped a spot, but why stop there. There is no potential power benefit .314 SLG (Tim’s has pointed out his ISO gains against LHP is stopped/declining.) Maybe Harrison, his career numbers wouldn’t justify it .237/.257/.408 in 178 career PAs, but he has hit .368/.414/.656 against LHP in 100 PAs in AAA this year. At the very least drop Alvarez to 6th, or 7th.

    The Pirates have faced a lefty started like 20% of time so maybe I am making more out of this than is justified. However, each win is important and out are precious, as use of the sac bunt has demonstrated, so why not maximize those outs and put players in positions that they can succeed.

  • Ecbucs

    Talk abut bad strategy – I think it was terrible to send Johnson out for 6th inning (even 4th and 5th was pushing it).

    Also Martin swung at first strike to him with 2 outs and bases loaded. I think in that situation he had to take the first strike.

    Hitters are pressing.

    • moose7195

      Kris Johnson was called up from the Indy starting rotation, so it is entirely reasonable to let him pitch at least 5 innings. And its not Johnson’s fault the offense only got like 2 hits in the last 8 innings of the game.

      I agree entirely with everything else though. Our hitters struggled to see even 5 pitches/AB for long stretches of time. It was obvious that they are pressing, and Hurdle, as a former WS hitting coach, and Jay Bell should be able to do something with these terrible approaches, but they have failed consistently in recent weeks.

  • jon6er

    I got blasted earlier on every fan site for my criticism of Hurdle’s game management. I understand the winning record they have and i certainly understand his first rate motivational skills. However, he doesn’t have the bashers available he had in his only previous success as a manger in Colorado. He wasn’t dealing with the types of games he has with this team and its many close games. You really can’t say any manager directly caused a loss because they don’t have a bat or a glove and they aren’t running the bases. But Hurdle has lessened the teams best chances to win in many games this year with his against the “book that doesn’t exist” moves.

  • buckner

    For the most part i love clint hurdle,especially as a motivator.But honestly,someone needs to talk to him about his old school infatuation w bunting in bizarre situations cause i guess he has a hunch it will work.you have to play percentages. And can someone explain to me why marte continues to try n steal third when he’s already in scoring position.i love his aggressiveness but he honestly should have the red light in those situations

  • Nuke Laloosh

    I said as soon as Mercer laid down the bunt that they just took the bat out of Cuth’s hand. Stupid move. Too worried about the double play being in order instead of having two of your hottest hitters up to drive Marte in.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    Something just is bad is using all your pinch hitters early in the game. He may be a great motivator but his in-game management is often less than stellar.

  • IC Bob

    The problem with the line up and the issues with Bunting are simple. This team lacks one more quality hitter. Its embarrassing that we trot out Martin as our best clean up hitter against a lefty. He is a nice ball player but he isn’t a clean up hitter. He is a 7 guy. Alvarez can’t hit lefties so he can’t bat clean up yet he is there every day. Jones and Sanchez can be flip flopped but that s not really good either. This team needs one more hitter that we can just plug into the 4 hole and go. Unfortunate that we didn’t get anyone at the deadline but I get it. I am though totally over the platoon at every base except LF, Center and 3rd

    • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

      Actually its not quite that simple. The Pirates have that one extra bat for the middle of the order but the problem is he is stuck in a role he isn’t suited for which is leading off.

      • buster09

        BB : you are exactly right ! A onth ago I brought this subject up on a different site,and was both laughed at and critcized heavily. I said they needed to get Polanco up there to lead off,and get Marte’ down in the order where his approach fits much better. And I don’t want to hear about Polanco being ” too inexperienced ” or ” not being ready “. Thats all BS at this stage,and maybe someone could tell me how the offensive outcome would be any damned worse than 2 runs in 16 innings ?

  • BamaBuc21

    Call me crazy, but in my mind that was the time to be aggressive. I would have sent Marte running on the first pitch. Then, Mercer can bunt him over to third with one out which gives the Bucs a chance to drive him in with a sac fly.

    If Marte gets thrown out, you still have Mercer and Cuctch coming up with a chance to swing the bat. Instead, neither got to swing the bat.

    • capirate

      Disagree with the bunting part of your comment. I hate when there is a runner at 2nd with no outs and Hurdle bunts him to 3rd, especially someone fast like Marte. I would much rather have 3 batters given a chance to drive the runner in from 2nd than 2 chances from 3rd. The sacrifice bunt is this situation is a totally wasted out in my opinion.

      I’ve seen this happen at least a few times this year.

  • Y2JGQ2

    Personally I like what they are doing in theory, but not with the personnel involved. Starling should have been stealing, and if he gets to 2nd, bunt him to third or not…..whatever. Cutch is probably going to be walked no matter what, but that’s not the point.

    I also agree that we are putting way too many eggs in the 9 inning basket and leaving nothing for extra innings. I have no problem with leaving johnson in for 6 or even 7 innings. he’s been pitching 7 innings nearly every start in indy and was the best option we had.

  • leadoff

    I don’t think anyone criticizes Hurdles in-game management more than I do, but in this case I don’t think it would have mattered what he did, in fact if Marte was standing on 3rd with no outs, I still would have put my money on the D-Backs getting out of it. This is where the “Core” has to win games and they fail so often. Hurdle made the right move bunting Marte to 2nd, he just did not have the horses to complete the deal, it does not matter if it is 1970 or 2013, the same strategy is a a safe strategy and it works for other teams that have clutch hitters, just not for the Pirates because they don’t have clutch hitters or smart players, witness Cutch standing on 3rd base with the winning run when all he had to do was go home a couple of games ago.
    Hurdles loyalty to guys like Alvarez, Martin and McCutchen and his disloyalty to rest of the lineup puts him in the spots he ends up in. There is nothing wrong with pinch hitting for Alvarez if the situation calls for it, sometimes you don’t need the big bang, sometimes making contact is more important, a Ja Hay moment might work better in certain situations.
    At this point in the Pirates progression it would seem to me that 2nd base and 3rd base are where Pirates go to to die. That is not on Hurdle.

  • buster09

    8/19/2013: Polanco, 21, is batting .279/.373/.426 with five home runs, 34 RBI , 12 steals and a .147 ISO through 53 games for Double-A Altoona. If that isn’t your leadoff man and RF,I don’t know where you are ever going to find one this season.

    • IC Bob

      Buster thats AA! I look forward to Polonco coming but he still needs work. Additionally Marte is not a middle of the order hitter yet. I wish he was he is on my fantasy team. I love the guy but his game is speed. He has a ton of bunt hits and HBPs. That just doesn’t play well for middle of the order. In 3 years maybe if he develops the power stroke and learns to layoff the big curve out of the zone.

      • http://www.facebook.com/alva.herman.1 Alva Herman

        IC Bob : let me tell you this Bob. I have probably seen 1000 AA games,along with hundreds of MLB games including ST. And if you think Polanco ” still needs work “,you are right. But so did Manny Machado last year,and Anthony Rendon earlier this season,not to mention Justin Verlander when he was pitching for Erie and spot starting in Detroit. My point is that sometimes you have to do with what you got,or you watch offensive games like that one yesterday. And is Marte’ wouldn’t help in the middle of the order right now, I don’t know who on that team could,or will.

  • http://www.facebook.com/faye.zbuksukcz Faye Zbuksukcz

    It wasn’t just the bunt in that situation that drove me nuts. It was also batting Walker for Barmes in the 9th, with Sanchez on deck. Especially since there was no RISP situation. No need to empty the bench there as Barmes hits Heath Bell fairly well. Save someone for later fro crying out loud.

  • Nuke Laloosh

    The worst thing you can hear as a Pirate fan is “The Pirates have the bases loaded”.

  • leadoff

    OR, man on third and no outs, what a tease that is.
    I like the Cubs manager, man on 3rd 1 out for St.Louis and a pop up to his SS, SS forgot how many outs there were and casually caught the ball, St.Louis, (smart players), guy takes off for home, when SS wakes up, throw to home is late, run scores. SS comes down the dugout steps and is kindly greeted by manager with a “Your out of the Game” to his young SS.
    Could it be that maybe Hurdle needs to distribute some tough love once in a while?

    • http://www.facebook.com/faye.zbuksukcz Faye Zbuksukcz

      believe it or not, Starlin Castro is a bigger waste of natural talent and ability than even Jose Tabata. Kid could’ve been HanRam or better. Not the first time he’s been caught sleeping or not giving effort (nor second, nor third, nor sixth…) and likely won’t be last.

  • IC Bob

    No way Marte is a middle of the order bat, He has about 20 bunt hits right now. His speed is the reason he has a lot of extra base hits. In time he may develop the power that will play for the middle of the order but right now he is in a perfect spot where he can use his speed and effect the team. We need another big bat. Pedro is great as long as a RH is on the mound. Martin is great if you compare him to other catchers but neither is a good clean up hitter if you have a guy like Cutch in front of him. Their are guys out their that could really thrive here, Morneau, Morse, Willingham to name a few. My guess is they would cost money and maybe one C+ prospect. The biggest issue would be who moves off the 40 man roster

  • http://www.facebook.com/alva.herman.1 Alva Herman

    So Bob, you are saying you think it is Neil’s fault then ? Why has nobody else even sniffed at those 3 guys you mention.As for what I know,there is only one guy on there right now I would even think about.