The (not so) hidden small ball problem:

It seems as often as it’s been noted that sacrifice bunting is detrimental to run scoring, a more pertinent question is overlooked just as often.

Imagine for a second there is a better question than “Why would you do something that reduces your team’s chances of scoring?”  I know, that’s a tough one for those of us who are logically inclined.

But before I get to that, let’s quickly review what’s been said on numerous occasions, both here and elsewhere:

Your team’s average run expectancy with a runner on 1st, no out: .94

Your team’s average run expectancy with a runner on 2nd and one out: .72

OK, so you don’t need a math degree from MIT to see sacrifice bunting is stupid.

But that’s total run expectancy…what if you’re trying to score just one run?

When on first base and no out, that particular runner will score 44% of the time.

When on 2nd base and one out, that particular runner will score 42% of the time.

So again, it doesn’t make sense.  “Successful sacrifice” is an oxymoron.

Also again – this doesn’t factor in that almost half of all bunt attempts end up as outs without the runner advancing.  So those percentages above denoting “successful” attempts are actually not even accurate – they should be closer to half those numbers.

But by even entertaining this silly discussion, we’re overlooking the obvious absence of logic here.  We are asking the wrong question.  The question should be, why in the name of George Herman Ruth, are we trying to score ONLY one run?

If you answered because it’s the bottom of the 9th (or later) and we only need one run, I refer you to the above numbers.

But unfortunately that’s not what happens the overwhelming majority of the time.  In almost all cases, sacrifice bunts are used by visiting teams and/or by the home team prior to the 9th inning.

Now I’m coming back to the not so hidden aspect of this issue:  Baseball has no clock. I know, “duh”, right?

This seems obvious.  This is one of the reasons we all love baseball.  It’s what differentiates baseball from the other big sports.  You can’t run your offense to take time off the clock and by doing so, minimize the other teams’ opportunities.  In baseball, you have to get the other batters out 27 times regardless of what your offense does.

So my question, is why would people who have played and/or watched baseball their whole life behave as if there is a clock?  Because that’s exactly what’s being done when you bunt before the bottom of the 9th.  You’re behaving as if you’ve taken time off the other team’s clock – you have not.

Imagine in a football game your team is up 14 points with less than 3 minutes to play.  You have the ball, 4th down deep in the other team’s territory.  It makes perfect sense to kick a field goal.  It’s less risky than going for it and in adding that 3 points you create a scenario where the other team needs 3 possessions to even have a chance to win.  Given that it’s highly unlikely that they’ll even get 3 possessions, it’s lottery level unlikely they’ll score 3 times with that amount of time left.

In basketball it makes sense to hold the ball as long as possible before shooting if you have a big lead late in the 4th quarter.  You may be making it more difficult on yourself to score, but you’re greatly reducing the number of opportunities the other team will have to score, greatly increasing your team’s chances.

But by playing for one run in baseball you aren’t reducing the other team’s opportunities – you’re reducing yours.  Even if your bunt works according to plan and you score one run, you’ve precluded yourself from scoring many runs and creating a significantly larger deficit for the other team to overcome – quite often, a virtual game ending deficit.

The obvious next logical step is the other team sure as hell (if they’re smart) isn’t going to play for one run.  They’re still going to try to score a lot of runs.  And if they’re successful, your play it for one run just cost you the game.

Just recently I re-watched the 1978 one game playoff between the Yankees and the Red Sox.  We all remember Bucky Dent.  Almost all of us remember Goose vs. Yaz.  Most of us remember Reggie’s HR and Pinella’s great play in right.

What you may not remember, because I didn’t, was Boston’s Rick Burleson led off the bottom of the 6th with a double.  Already leading 1-0, and with numbers 2 through 6 in the order coming up (some of whom were named Rice, Yastrzemski, Fisk and Lynn – 3 Hall of Famers and one who should be) manager Don Zimmer decided to sacrifice bunt.

It worked according to Zim’s plan.  Boston scored one run.

The next inning the Yankees scored 4.  They went on to win the game 5-4.

In one of the most famous baseball games ever, the Red Sox played for one run in the 6th inning.  With no outs a runner on 2nd and some serious firepower coming up, the Sawx went all small ball on the Yanks.  This cost them the game, the misery of Bucky fucking Dent, and a shot at ending 26 more years of curse agony.

This, among other reasons, is why smoke comes out of my ears when a team pats themselves on the back after a bunt and a single leads to a run.  The question that should be asked, but never is, is how many damn runs would you have scored if you didn’t give away an out?

Yes, I know that’s one game but there were a million before and a million after just like it.

I never thought I’d need to remind people, but apparently I do:

There is no clock in baseball.  Using strategy that suggests there is, is a nonsensical.  You need to maximize your run scoring potetnial every chance you get.


Thanks again to Baseball Reference, Brian Kenny’s “Ahead of the Curve” and Tom Tango’s “The Book”.



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