The Sac Bunt: The Real Rally Killer

Dave · May 9, 2012 at 8:57 am · Filed Under Mariners 

I just finished up an 1,800 word post on the foibles of the sacrifice bunt from last night’s games over at FanGraphs. I spend more time on the Dodgers-Giants game than the M’s-Tigers affair, but the point is all the same – the decision making on this issue from the field level continues to be staggeringly uneducated.

Stop. Bunting.


31 Responses to “The Sac Bunt: The Real Rally Killer”

  1. ivan on May 9th, 2012 9:55 am

    I could not agree with you more on this, Dave. As soon as Saunders walked, I turned to my brother and said: “What do you want to bet that dumb m- f- Wedge has Ackley bunt?”

    I mean come ON! Two runs down in the bottom of the 9th, and he’s giving up an out with one of his better hitters up and one of his worst to follow?

    Earl Weaver would be turning cartwheels in his grave if Earl was dead. I don’t know what offends me more, the fact that Wedge had Ackley bunt, or the fact that it was so utterly predictable.

  2. BillyJive on May 9th, 2012 9:55 am

    Managers get hired and fired in Seattle more often than I change my socks….do you think a new Manager would help this team at all?

  3. Dennisss on May 9th, 2012 9:59 am

    There is a larger point here, which is that the improved decision-making that is becoming standard in the game does not seem to be filtering into the managerial position very quickly.

    Dave, you responded to one of my comments a couple of years ago saying that fans of most teams think their manager makes too many lousy decisions. Well, maybe we’re right. Managers make plenty of money; you should be able attract the very best candidates to that job. I think the position is due for an upgrade league-wide.

  4. seagood3 on May 9th, 2012 10:15 am

    I would like to see some statistics to back up your bunts are awful logic.

    The double play is a true rally killer. Dustin Ackley has grounded out on 20% of his plate appearances this year. So basically you have the same odds for him getting a hit as you do for him to ground into a potential double play.

    Dave, you often mention that the result does not justify whether it was a good decision or not. Is your article not based on the results of what happened and not looking at statistically if the decisions are sound?

    The probability of scoring with the bases loaded and 1 out are higher than 1st and 2nd with no outs. So Mattingly bunting was a sound decision was it not?

    I don’t completely disagree with you on Ackley bunting, but I also can’t go all the way to saying bunts are a rally killer. I would love to see some statistics on this.

  5. Johnny Slick on May 9th, 2012 10:30 am

    The biggest problem with the “you should hire managers who make better decisions” issue is that decision-making is far from the only thing that managers do. In fact, it probably is a lot less important than the other things: keeping morale up among the players, identifying and coordinating with the coaching staff in rectifying fixable weaknesses, relaying scouting information to his players properly, being the front line for the pregame and postgame media so that the players don’t have to explain why they made decision X, and so on. Given that the actual effect of in-game decision-making is generally very, very low and varies very, very little from one manager to the next (let’s face it: Wedge might bunt a lot too much but nearly every manager bunts too often anyway), these in-game decisions could easily be one of the *least* important factors from Jack Z’s standpoint, as frustrating as they are to all of us.

    So for all we know, Wedge’s goofy demeanor is great at motivating guys in the clubhouse. His repeated mantras to get guys to swing more are annoying but maybe that’s the message some of the players need to hear (okay, I doubt this one is true). Maybe in spite of everything else he actually is pretty decent at finding and fixing flaws. For all we know, he is a good manager overall; as fans, we only really see one aspect of his job at play and, if we’re unlucky (as was the case with Wak) hear about the other aspects as the clubhouse falls apart.

    All that being said, screw the bunt. What was it that Earl Weaver said? “The bunt has a place in today’s game. Usually it’s on the back of the bench.” Something like that?

  6. Johnny Slick on May 9th, 2012 10:38 am

    would like to see some statistics to back up your bunts are awful logic.

    Dude, we’ve had like 30 years now of linear weights and base-out expected runs and so on. In nearly every situation, including runners on first and second with 1 out, the base-out situation that results from a successful bunt is less valuable than the one before, and yes, that takes into account the chances of a double play. What a bunt *does* do is increase the chances of a single run scoring but – and this is where Dave is really, really angry about this – the Mariners weren’t down by 1 run, they were down by 2. If you take all the possible run outcomes multiplied by the chances they have of occurring, even with the higher chance of 1 run scoring you wind up with a lower run per play overall. That’s because the chances of scoring 2+ runs is *dramatically* lowered by trading an out for 90 feet on the basepaths.

    Dave’s article links to a longer article with numbers at the bottom of it if you want those. Otherwise, I recommend “The Hidden Game of Baseball” by Palmer and Thorn, which came out I think in 1982.

  7. currcoug on May 9th, 2012 10:42 am

    The real problem is Ackley’s failure to execute the bunt.

  8. BillyJive on May 9th, 2012 10:44 am

    Ackley never shoulda been asked to bunt in the first place. If anything, Ryan shoulda been asked to lean into one and take one for the team. Although I have to give him props for stealing second.

  9. Dennisss on May 9th, 2012 10:47 am


    I’m sure that a lot of people would agree with you, and that other aspects of a manager’s job are more important than some of the in-game choices they make.

    My counter-argument is this: I just looked up on the Internet that the Mariners are paying Wedge about $1.9 million per year. For that kind of money, you should be able to get someone who is really outstanding in everything they do — one of the most talented people on the planet. Not someone who costs his team in key situations.

    Managers have to have many talents, but for that kind of money, you can get a talented person, one who would have let Ackley swing.

  10. BLYKMYK44 on May 9th, 2012 10:56 am

    It doesn’t seem like Dave is arguing just about the outcome of the decision. He is also arguing that it doesn’t make that much sense to bunt when the guy behind them was very unlikely to get a hit…

  11. turin07 on May 9th, 2012 11:05 am

    No. There is nothing wrong with situational bunting. Down by 2 runs is not the right situation, for sure. But in general there is certainly an appropriate time for it.

  12. Johnny Slick on May 9th, 2012 11:38 am


    The real issue here is that the pool of available talent is just not that large, unfortunately. You pretty much *have* to choose someone who is either currently managing at the minor league level, is a major-league coach, or in rare instances is a recently retired former player (didn’t Ozzie Guillen get his gig with the White Sox sight unseen?). The last time someone tried to put an outsider in there as manager – Tampa Bay and John Boles – it ended very, very poorly (he lost the clubhouse amid several players openly disrespecting his “lack of true baseball knowledge”). Maybe another trial would not end in such abject failure but no GM, risk-averse lot that they are, is willing to do that at this point in time. Even Billy Beane hires baseball guys.

    That means that at any one time your pool of guys to choose from is at best a couple hundred people long, each and every one of them well-versed in what a manager is “supposed to do”, which includes calling for too many one-run strategies. Whether you offer $400,000 or $2M isn’t going to change the available pool because it’s not limited by guys who have other job options so much as it is limited by the fact that you must hire baseball men.

    And actually, it’s even worse than that because in most cases you aren’t even going to consider a AA manager or a less-than-successful AAA one or a pitching coach at all (really, bench coaches are the only guys who regularly get managerial jobs with any regularity). Realistically, you maybe have 30 or 40 guys to choose from if you cast a very wide net. *Maybe* you can find a guy in that suddenly tiny group that is not only good at all the other managery things to be good at but who is also not frustratingly, um, old school baseball about calling for 1-run strategies. Your chances are not high.

  13. currcoug on May 9th, 2012 11:39 am

    Maybe we should be discussing the real cause of the M’s demise last night…namely, Kevin Millwood.

  14. ivan on May 9th, 2012 11:41 am

    seagood3 says:

    “I would like to see some statistics to back up your bunts are awful logic. ”

    The very first book about statistical analysis applied to baseball ever written — “Percentage Baseball” by Earnshaw Cook — pretty much laid to rest forever the notion that the sacrifice bunt makes any sense. That was in nineteen sixty f-ing four!

    Every baseball manager except one ignored totally all of Cook’s work. The exception was Earl Weaver, IMO the greatest manager of my lifetime, who, I think we might all agree, got pretty good results avoiding the sacrifice bunt almost altogether.

    Just because most other managers are total dumbasses about the bunt doesn’t mean that the evidence isn’t there — and moreover, it has been there for two full generations.

    The move that makes me totally crazy is the sacrifice bunt with a runner on second and nobody out. Cook had a field day describing — statistically — how mind-numbingly stupid this is. Piniella was one of the worst offenders with this one.

  15. Kazinski on May 9th, 2012 11:45 am

    Last nights bunt attempt made no sense at all. You are down by 2 runs, even if the bunt is successful you are lowering your chances of winning.

    Mondays bunt made perfect sense, it lowered the run expectancy by .14 runs, but more importantly it increased the chances that at least one run would score, and it increased the win expectancy by 2.3%. And we only need one run to win.

  16. Dennisss on May 9th, 2012 11:53 am


    That makes perfect sense to me. Still, if you want to be on the leading edge of baseball, you want to try hard to find the guy who can do it all.

    More importantly, what to do about it? Can managers be taught? Is the pool of available talent weaker than it should be? Are they hiring the wrong people to manage in the minors? Should the manager be getting better advice from the bench coach or others in the dugout?

    You would really want to exhaust other possibiilities before accepting that managers just won’t always make decisions that help their team. Someone (Tampa Bay?) will find a way to get around this deficiency and will gain an advantage. Why not Seattle?

  17. Johnny Slick on May 9th, 2012 12:17 pm

    I think there’s two other issues at play here:

    1. Managers are really, really risk-averse, and it’s easy to see why. If they make a decision “by the book” which doesn’t pay off, they don’t really get a great deal of heat for it except by stat nerds like us. I mean, look at the coverage of last night’s game: the lead article mentions the bunt only in passing and Baker’s blog just says “well, gee, I wouldn’t have made this move but it’s a really tough decision to make”, an angle which more or less gives Wedge a pass for this. The flip side is, if Wedge does something against the book and it fails, the media is going to excoriate him for it. If it’s far enough against the book, like telling a guy to bunt for a hit during a no-hitter, the national media is going to pick up the story and really rip him a new one.

    2. Even if you can find a manager iconoclastic enough to completely ignore all those people who will hate on him for playing against the book, you still have to put him into a clubhouse situation where all of the coaches and the players *also* think that you should always follow the book. You’d kind of have to find a guy who is not only willing to go against the grain but who is consistently charismatic enough to convince 25 guys and 5 coaches that the clubhouse won’t blow up the 20th time the team fails to bunt in a “classic” bunt situation and loses the game (the two events need not be in a causal relationship). And then on top of that, this charismatic iconoclast needs to think the same way you do. Even if you don’t have 50 or fewer applicants to choose from for a job, guys like that are in extremely short supply.

    I think the best way to stop this is by changing what the book says. That means reporters need to hold managers’ feet to the fire when they make “by the book” decisions which actually cost their team runs. That in turn means that we as fans/nerds need to hold reporters’ feet to the fire when they in turn won’t do this. I realize that ripping on Baker is passe here but who do you think is more likely to be here in 5 years, him or Eric Wedge?

  18. daddydriz on May 9th, 2012 12:19 pm

    That was an excellent read, Dave. It should be required reading by Wedge, unfortunately, he (like most) is “old school” and managing as if if is still 1953, and will not be open to new ideas and thinking.

    I just had to wonder how Jackie Z, who is open to new ideas based on probabilities, felt about Wedge’s decision to bunt in that situation.

    You hit the nail on the head in identifying the situations where a sac bunt that gives up an out might make sense.

  19. daddydriz on May 9th, 2012 12:23 pm

    Johnny, it was Baker’s blog but Larry Stone who wrote it. We don’t know what Baker thinks about the move. My guess is he hated it as much as Dave.

  20. Johnny Slick on May 9th, 2012 12:39 pm

    Yeah, good point. Completely missed that! I still think it’s not enough for us to just trust that Geoff didn’t like the move. It was a dumb move and he needs to report it as such.

    By the way, if it was 1953, that move would have been even dumber; in 1953 teams were scoring a lot more runs than now, the threat of a double play from the 1953 equivalent of Brendan Ryan would have been lower despite the chance of him putting the ball in play being higher, and Detroit would have been extra confused about having to play a major league baseball game in a vacant lot.

  21. vertigoman on May 9th, 2012 12:57 pm

    I don’t think Ackley should have been asked to bunt last night but it shouldn’t serve as an indictment against bunting in general. Sorry, this is as silly as Baker’s ownership conspiracy theory.
    Well maybe not quite but it’s in the ballpark.

  22. marinermoose3 on May 9th, 2012 2:48 pm

    Ok I’ve been reading the USS Mariner blog for about a year now, and I freaking love it. I just read everything before, but now I decided I had to get a user name, so I could comment on this article and take out my frustration on Wedge and that decision last night. I hated it.

  23. Steve Nelson on May 9th, 2012 3:00 pm

    Another point to remember when analyzing the “success” of sacrificing is that unless you dig into pitch-by-pitch data, your data population for “no sacrifice” will include the situations where a sacrifice was attempted but the batter either missed the pitch or bunted foul. You then wind up including situations where the batter is trying to hit after putting himself into an unfavorable count.

    IOW – the disadvantages of putting on a sacrifice are even worse than indicated by many of the studies.


    That being said, there certainly are situations where a bunt can be a good call; but that often depends on the particular batter (it’s often a good call with a pitcher at bat since advancing the runner with an out is better than a strikeout or a weak fly out). It can also depend on what the matchups look like in the ensuing at bats.

    As Dave points out, sacrificing Ackley to get a matchup of Brendan Ryan againt Jose Valverde is is not what one should be trying to do. It’s evidence that Eric Wedge and Robby Thompson aren’t really thinking through those downstream issues.

  24. TherzAlwaysHope on May 9th, 2012 3:19 pm

    Referring to the first game of the Tiger series: with no outs in the bottom of the 9th, Seager sac bunts M. Kawasaki to third. The fangraphs win probability liked the move going from 79% to 82%. Not much, but it also did not punish the move. Jaso finished the job.

    What am I saying. I don’t know. Just sayin.’

    Here’s the link.

  25. gwangung on May 9th, 2012 9:38 pm

    Sorry, this is as silly as Baker’s ownership conspiracy theory.




    This is basic odds. From EMPIRIRCAL observation.

    It’s like arguing it’s OK to hit on a 16 with the dealer showing 10.

  26. vertigoman on May 10th, 2012 12:53 am

    Stating that the sac. bunt is useless in general is silly. It’s also
    Simplistic and Extreme.
    I don’t agree with bunting Ackley last night but sac bunts in general are not evil incarnate.
    Baseball is nuanced and the broad brush stroke approach doesn’t work. Take tonights game for example.
    Dave is probably overstating for effect here I know. And that’s what I’m commenting on. It sounds like Baker, which is hugely disappointing.
    This isn’t twitter, there has always been room for nuance here, or at least there used to be.

  27. miscreant on May 10th, 2012 7:27 am

    How about this, when Dave makes it as a MLB manager all MLB managers agree to stop using the bunt. Until then…STFU

  28. gwangung on May 10th, 2012 10:24 am

    Stating that the sac. bunt is useless in general is silly.

    No, it’s empirically based.

    Can you state Dave’s reasoning, showing that you understand it? Because it is not clear to me that you grasp it at all.

    How about this, when Dave makes it as a MLB manager all MLB managers agree to stop using the bunt.

    That’s just a stupid comment. Don’t have to be a manager to, say, criticize the use of an Olivo at catcher.

  29. toughguy5128 on May 10th, 2012 10:30 am

    Well… the sac bunt worked pretty well on Wednesday nights game(last night).

  30. vertigoman on May 10th, 2012 4:44 pm

    “No, it’s empirically based.
    Can you state Dave’s reasoning, showing that you understand it? Because it is not clear to me that you grasp it at all.”

    One, the notion that the sacrifice bunt is (as a whole) useless and should not be used…ever…is not empirically based. It’s an opinion. A far reaching blanket statement that has eliminated nuance and subtlety in favor of “effect”.
    In general, should a team not hand over outs with a bunt? Yes. Lots of “empirical” data to support that (They wrote books about it almost 30 years ago) But that is a long ways from saying it should never be done. Baseball, like life, offers many different scenarios and having more options at one’s disposal to tackle those differing scenarios is better than eliminating options. How does that not make sense?
    It comes down to picking the best option. In the case of the Ackley bunt attempt, it wasn’t the best option. Last night the Figgins sac. bunt was a good option and used appropriately.

    I doubt Dave needs a herald or a choir. If you’re going to respond to my comments go ahead give me your opinion not Dave’s.

  31. The Wheelhouse on May 11th, 2012 3:25 pm

    Valverde was not throwing strikes. I think they should have waited to have Ackley bunt until Valverde could prove that he had some control. Yea, Ackley failed to lay down the bunt, but I think it was an inappropriate time to try one given the circumstances.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.