First Pitch: Bunting Away Runs, And Eventually Wins

I have nothing against a sacrifice bunt in the right situation. I do have something against a sacrifice bunt in every situation that could call for a sacrifice bunt.

Sacrifice bunts may move runners over in to a better scoring position, but that comes at the cost of a free out. In some situations the bunt makes sense. If Rod Barajas leads off with a double, I’d bunt him over to third base. He’s no guarantee to score from second, especially after legging out a double. However, if Alex Presley leads off the inning with a double, which he did twice tonight, I’m not bunting him over.

The Pirates did exactly that, on two occasions tonight. Presley led off the game with a double, and was immediately bunted over by Jose Tabata. Andrew McCutchen came up and brought Presley in with a ground out.

Later in the game, Presley led off with another double. Tabata went for another bunt, but the plans fell through, and he ended up coming away with a single in to right field, with Presley only advancing to third, waiting to see if the ball would drop. Andrew McCutchen came up big with a two RBI double in the next at-bat, putting the Pirates up 3-2.

With Presley’s speed, there’s little reason to bunt him over to third with one out. The only advantage is that you bring him in on a sacrifice fly. That strategy is focusing on aiming for one run. It works if you get leadoff doubles often. The Pirates don’t.

You also limit Andrew McCutchen’s impact with a bunt. If Tabata gets the bunt down in the seventh, Presley still scores on the McCutchen double, but the game is now tied at 2-2, instead of the Pirates leading 3-2. An inning later, Tabata tried to bunt with runners at first and second and no outs. He ended up popping out to the catcher. Had he laid a bunt down, Colorado would have probably intentionally walked McCutchen, thus taking the bat away from your best hitter.

Tabata had two hits on the night. It was his third multi-hit game in the last four games. He’s a very streaky hitter, and this could be the start of a hot streak. There’s no reason to take the bat out of his hands to play small ball. The Pirates need to shoot for big innings. Sacrifice bunts are fine in some situations, but the Pirates seem to attempt them in every situation. That’s a problem because it makes it impossible to have that big inning, and the Pirates haven’t been getting enough runners on base to make constant small ball work.

Bunting is fine in certain situations, but the more you bunt, the more you hurt your chances of scoring runs. Take a look at this 2011 Run Expectancy Matrix by Tangotiger. The matrix is made up of plays from 1969-1992, looking at how many runs are to be expected in every base running situation.

The Pirates twice opened the inning with a leadoff double from Alex Presley. According to the matrix above, that leads to 1.102 runs per inning. Bunting the runner over to third, and putting one out on the board, lowers the run expectancy to 0.943.

A leadoff walk or a leadoff single has a run expectancy of 0.853. You may think that bunting a runner over increases the chances of scoring a run. It doesn’t. The expectancy for a runner at second and one out is 0.671.

Tonight the Pirates had the following sacrifice bunt situations, with the loss in run expectancy included.

**Jose Tabata bunts Alex Presley from 2nd to 3rd. -0.129

**Neil Walker bunts Casey McGehee from first to second. -0.182

**Alex Presley attempts a bunt with a runner on first, but reaches on an error. +0.623

**Jose Tabata attempts a bunt with runners at first and second, but bunts foul. -0.574

TOTAL: -0.262 expected runs.

The Pirates were very lucky tonight. Take out the error for Presley (and Tabata’s bunt foul, since he wouldn’t be bunting in that situation), and assume Tabata gets a bunt down in the seventh inning, and you’ve got a -0.589 change in run expectancy.

Even the pace tonight means one fewer run every four games. Over the course of a season that’s 40.5 runs lost. That’s four wins on the season, going by the 10 runs equals 1 win scale.

There are situations where a bunt is appropriate. If Clint Barmes hits a leadoff double, and the pitcher comes up, bunt. Odds are the pitcher will record an out, which would put the run expectancy at 0.678 with a runner at second and one out, instead of 0.943 with a runner at third and one out.

The problem is that the Pirates aren’t picking their situations. They are bunting in almost every situation. When you do that, you run in to a problem like I outlined above, where you’re literally throwing away wins over the course of the season. That’s not something a team like the Pirates can afford to do. If anything, with their offense they definitely can’t afford to be constantly lowering their run expectancy and giving away outs at the same time.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates won 5-4 against the Rockies. Game story here.

**Prospect Watch: Another great start for Jameson Taillon.

**Josh Bell left tonight’s game with an injury. Details here.

**Aaron Pribanic and Jarek Cunningham were placed on the disabled list today.

**Tony Watson has looked good this season, outside of his homer against Carlos Gonzalez tonight. Kristy Robinson wrote about how he’s an asset out of the bullpen.

**Speaking of Watson, I’ve talked a lot about closer usage in the last week. I tweeted this as Watson was coming in the game tonight: One run lead, runner on second, two outs, best hitter up, 8th inning. If closers were used properly, this is a situation where you’d use one.

Fortunately, the Rockies left their closer in the bullpen with a one run lead in the eighth inning.

**The transcript from today’s Prospects chat.

**Pirates Notebook: The Pirates and Rockies will make history by being the first teams to use the 26-man roster for tomorrow’s double header.

**Minor League Schedule for 4/25: Gerrit Cole is on the mound.


  • One thing that I don’t understand about your analysis is that you say “If Clint Barmes hits a
    leadoff double, and the pitcher comes up, bunt. Odds are the pitcher
    will record an out…” 

    If you think that if the odds are that the batter will record an out, then you are better of bunting, shouldn’t you always bunt in a possible bunt situation as no one hits over .500, meaning that odds are every player will record an out?

  • Another advantage of bunting in the first inning is having Presley score from third on a ground out – which is exactly what happened. Can you explain why a RE chart which measures what can be expected from a hypothetical average scoring team has any application to the worst run scoring offense in all of baseball? To me, that’s like saying that teams from 1969 to 1992 scored 4.6 runs per game so we should just blindly believe that’s what the Pirates will score per night. As Bob Walk put it, when the line up ain’t hitting, you have to figure out how best to score runs. A RE chart simply isn’t a predictive tool.

  • dropkickmurphys
    April 26, 2012 10:57 am

    The sacrifice bunt is baseball’s dumbest offensive move.  If you buy into the data in Tom Tango’s book, “The Book”, the sacrifice bunt (assuming it is successful) increases the likelihood of scoring one run about 3% (no outs with runner on first to one out with a runner on second). 

    Generally, 42% of all runners on first base with no outs, score.  About 45% of runners on second with one out score.  Now, those are averages and don’t account for the hitter’s (after the sac bunt) ability to put the ball in play successfully.  There is also another factor, the success of the sac bunt to move the runner over.  While I’m still looking up that data, I have to assume that when you factor in failed sac bunts, the likelihood of scoring, even one run, diminishes.

    At face value, and the pitcher being the only exception, it doesn’t make sense to give up 33% of an inning’s outs, to improve the team’s chance of scoring  by 3% under optimal circumstances.  The sac bunt, with position players in almost all cases, is bad baseball.

  • Great article Tim!  I’d like to see some sabremetric data on basestealing.  It seems like the Pirates are running themselves out of a lot of innings more often than not…

    • SB data is pretty straightforward (at least stealing 2B), depending on the study you need about a 72% success rate to add runs.

    • I would rather them trying run and hit plays than bunt with number 2 hitter in lineup.  Try and use speed but don’t give up outs unless it is late in game and one run could win it.

      I think bunting is especially bad when trying to move a runner from second to third.  One of the plusses of bunting is to avoid a double play late in game.  The other factor is the Bucs have not even been successful at bunting this year.

  • “You may think that bunting a runner over increases the chances of scoring a run.”

    That is somewhat incorrect Tim, depending on if the runner is on 1B or 2B. The chances of scoring 1 run is increased by bunting the runner to 3rd (.648 vs .609) last night’s situation, but the overall run expectancy (amount of runs) is decreased. Its a tradeoff. I agree with your opinion on the matter (the Bucs shouldn’t be giving away outs unless its a pitcher up or late game, 1 run situation), but its not so clear cut.

  • Kevin_Creagh
    April 25, 2012 7:58 am

    Midway down this epically long rant by Rany Jazayerli, he vents about Ned Yost doing the exact same thing — bunting from 2nd to 3rd with no outs.

    He practically has an anuerysm over it and I don’t blame him.  For an offensively challenged team, you don’t give away outs with the top of your order.  As you said Tim, if it’s the pitcher spot…sure, but not with Presley-Tabata-McCutchen.

    Dan Fox’s head must explode when he sees that.

    • Seriously? RE tables simply show what could be expected from an average team. Offensively challenged teams will not produce in accordance with the table; they’ll score less. The notion that offensively challenged teams should wait for the 3 run HR is folly.

  • And today they were bunting on someone who can’t even throw 80mph. In the first inning, if Tabata can’t hit the ball to the right side of the field against a softball pitcher who seems to pitch down and away, then I would seriously question why he’s in the Bigs.

    • Did you watch the game? They didn’t hit to the right side of the field all game against Moyer.

      • Yes, I did. What’s your point?

        • How many times did Pirates right handed hitters – who were being pitched on the outer half of the plate with slow stuff – attempt to go opposite field and how many times did they weakly ground out to the left side of the infield?  It wasn’t only Tabata who failed to hit the ball where it was pitched against Moyer, it was Walker, McCutchen, Barajas, McGehee . . . only Barmes seemed to have a clue at the plate.  Time after time, grounder to third base, grounder to shortstop, fly to left field.  The Bucco hitters should have been denting the right field scoreboard against Moyer and should’ve taken notes with how some Cardinals approached hitting Bedard.  Absolutely pathetic effort by nearly every hitter in the lineup against Moyer.  So . . . do I blame Hurdle for not having a whole lot of confidence in these guys right now?  No way. He’s reacting to what he’s seeing on the field.

          • I agree the effort was pathetic and that’s why I would blame both parties. Bunting in this scenario is basically giving an out away and decreasing your chances of a big inning (I’m aware we are talking about the offensively challenged Pirates). A major league hitter should know if he doesn’t get a pitch he can drive, he should be trying to hit the ball behind the runner to get him over to third. Hurdle should be reinforcing that idea to the hitters. It’s all about approach. By swinging away, you are going to increase your chances of getting a hit and producing more than 1 run.

  • Even more egregiously to me, the Pirates are bunting into situations where the defense is defending the bunt.  How much must a player’s batting average increase in a situation where one or two infielders are charging toward the plate, one is holding the runner, and the second baseman is running to cover first? It’s absurd to bunt against that defense if there’s any other option.

    • Yeah. The defense knows they will bunt, which makes it more likely that the defense will capitalize on a mistake, like the one from Tabata tonight.