Extra innings: To bunt, or not to bunt?

Mood improvement alert: We finally have some baseball to talk about.

Actual baseball. Not baseball’s role in society.

Actual baseball. Not MLB owners reaching record levels of duplicity.

Don’t misunderstand, those are very important issues that need to be discussed, but I prefer having them when some actual baseball is mixed in.

One of the rule changes MLB has made for the 2020 season is the runner on 2nd base in extra innings rule. In extra innings, the batting team will start the inning with a runner on 2nd base (the runner will be player who was the last batter to make an out in the previous inning.)

For brevity’s sake, we’re not going to delve into whether or not this is a good rule change long term – let’s stick to what it does to the on-filed strategy starting this evening. Because as you can imagine, with a runner on 2nd base and no outs in extra innings out the question on everyone’s mind will be:

“To bunt or not to bunt?”

Or more precisely, which is better in terms of increasing a team’s chances of winning: Having a runner on 2nd base with no outs or a runner on 3rd base with one out?

Each game situation will be slightly different but with a little bit of math that’s already been done for us and with a little context added, arriving at the answer to that question is a pretty easy journey.

For starters, if you are the visiting team, you never – and I mean NEVER – bunt.

Do not give up an out to play for one run. Ever.

It’s very simple. If you’re the road team and you have a one-run lead in extra innings, the gameis…not…over. In fact, your win probability is 69%, under normal circumstances. Read that again – your opponent has close to a one in three chance of winning the game when you’re only holding a one-run lead over them as a visitor in extra innings.

However…

If, as the road team, you have a two-run lead heading into the bottom half of an extra-inning, your win probability is 92%.

Game. Over. The difference between having a one-run lead and a two-run lead in extra innings is massive. (And if you have a three-run lead, your win probability is 96%. After that, your opponent may as well buy a lottery ticket.)

So for clarity’s sake, if you are the visiting team, do not bunt EVER. Play for as many runs as possible by leaving the runner on 2nd base and swing away. And as we’ll get into shortly, that particular runner has about the same chances of scoring from 2nd base with no outs as he does from 3rd base with one out anyway.

As a visiting team, bunting simply will not improve your chances of winning.

However, if you’re the home team batting in extra innings in a tie game, your win probability obviously jumps to 100% with the first run, so things get a little trickier. The manager is going to have to consider the context and circumstances.

Under normal circumstances the total run expectancy is better with a runner on 2nd base and no out than with a runner on 3rd base with one out – 1.15 to .952 to be exact. But again, one-run wins the game in a tie extra-inning game, so all we need to know is how often that particular runner scores in those circumstances.

A runner on 2nd base with no outs will score 61% of the time. That same runner on 3rd base with one out will score 65% of the time.

So it’s slightly better for him to be on 3rd base with one out, but not enough of a benefit to eliminate context as the determining factor in decision making, as opposed to numbers.

For example, if it’s the 14th inning and your opponent has their 11th best pitcher in the game and your numbers two, three, and four batters are due up, then obviously the decision is to swing the bat.

However, if your left-handed number nine hitter is leading off against an elite left-handed reliever, you’re probably better off seeing if he can lay one on the ground to advance the runner.

Who is on deck is just as important as who is leading off the inning as well.

If a hitter with a high slugging percentage – think Judge or Stanton – is on deck, it’s better to not risk giving away an out by having the leadoff hitter bunt because the difference between being on 2nd and being on 3rd is negligible when players like that are up next. Judge’s and Stanton’s hits, more often than not, will advance runners more than one base.

However, if a light hitter is on deck (assuming pinch-hitting isn’t an option) there is an advantage to having the leadoff batter get the runner to 3rd base. Low SLG % hitters are more likely to get hits on ground balls and balls that are in front of the outfielders that are far less likely to advance runners more than one base. Therefore, the risk of giving away an out with a bunt may be worth it to get the runner to 90 feet from home in that scenario.

What about if the home team is trailing in extra innings? Then is it worth it to have the leadoff hitter attempt to bunt the runner to 3rd base?

No.

Even if ultimately successful, that would only create a tie game which is essentially a coin flip after that. Your chances are better trying to get more than one run and win the game outright then and there. And remember, the chances of that particular runner scoring is about the same when he’s on 2nd with no outs as when he’s on 3rd with one out – so you’re just as likely to get your coin flip scenario by eschewing the bunt and swinging away anyway.

Again, it’s great to be back to having discussions like this again. Thanks for reading – if I missed something, let me know.

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