This is the second installment of a periodic series called Stupid Manager Tricks. In this series, I will continue to examine certain baseball strategies that have been commonplace in baseball for many decades, some going as far back as the Dead Ball days nearly a hundred years ago.
These strategies are part of baseball’s Conventional Wisdom, things a manager does when he wants to show everyone how aggressive he is, or when he runs out of ideas about how to coax more runs out of an anemic offense.
The problem with some of these strategies, of course, is that they are just plain dumb, Conventional Wisdom notwithstanding.
In the first part of this series, which I posted here on March 11, I took a closer look at the Questionable Value of the Attempted Steal.
In that blog-post, I presented evidence that the Pittsburgh Pirates of the late 1970’s, a team that I used as an example due to their vaunted aggressiveness on the base-paths, almost certainly ran themselves out of at least one, if not two, division titles due to the high frequency of unsuccessful stolen base attempts they piled up those two years.
The point I was trying to make then, and which I will be focusing on again today, is that being aggressive and being smart are not always one in the same when it comes to baseball.
Which leads me to today’s topic, the Sacrifice Bunt. Now, it is true to a certain extent that the Sacrifice Bunt has gone out of style. Indeed , some teams, especially in the American League where the DH is the order of the day, hardly ever employ the Sacrifice Bunt as a strategy.
In fact, use of the Sacrifice Bunt varies widely from team to team. The Cincinnati Reds used it 100 times last season, the most of any team in baseball. The Orioles used it the least, just 13 times.
Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Reds manager, Dusty Baker, spent his playing days at a time when the Sacrifice Bunt was often readily employed as a common, in-game strategy, the 1970’s.
Conversely, Orioles manager Dave Trembley has never played pro ball at any level. He’s been a coach or a manager his entire professional life.
Therefore, Trembley apparently hasn’t been indoctrinated with the Conventional Wisdom of “small ball,” the philosophy first promulgated during the Dead Ball era that baseball played correctly involves lavish use of the bunt, the stolen base, and the spikes on the bottom of one’s shoes.
But how effective is the Sacrifice Bunt as a means by which a team can improve its chances to score runs?
To more closely examine this issue, I will have an imaginary conversation with major league pitcher Roy Halladay, now with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Why a pitcher, you ask, and not a hitter? Because it helps to know if a pitcher thinks this strategy makes his life tougher, or it he thinks it’s a silly waste of time.
And anyway, Halladay was available. So here we go:
“Roy, thanks so much for joining us here today, especially on such short notice.”
“Not a problem, Bill. Thanks for having me.”
“Roy, over in the A.L., when you were pitching for Toronto, was the Sacrifice Bunt something you used to guard against as a serious threat by the team you were pitching against?”
“You know, Bill, I hardly ever even thought about that as an issue. My job, in either league, is simply to get batters out, however I can. You want to try a Sacrifice Bunt, go for it.”
“Are you saying that the hitters were doing you a favor by attempting a Sacrifice Bunt, that they were, in effect, giving you one free out to work with?”
“Yeah, I mean, a major league hitter should be able to come to the plate and have a reasonable chance to put the ball in play, right? So if they put the ball in play, without bunting, they just might end up with a hit, or maybe the defense makes an error behind me. Now, I trust my defense, which is why I like to pitch to contact. Keeps your pitch-counts low, and you can work deeper into games. But when a hitter puts a ball in play, anything can happen.”
“But Roy, isn’t that also true of the Sacrifice Bunt? Once the ball is bunted, anything can happen.”
“True, but the goal of the bunt is to give up an out, while, hopefully, moving a runner up a single base. As a pitcher with a lot of confidence in my abilities, that’s a trade-off I’ll take any time.”
“So basically, once a hitter sacrifices, assuming he even manages to get the lead runner down to second base, he has done one-third of your work for you.”
“That’s right. And now I’m looking for the strikeout on the next batter because if I can get the K, the runner on second-base is a sitting duck. He can’t be brought home, or even move up a base, with a Sac Fly ’cause now there are two outs.”
“And aren’t big innings much less likely to occur once a Sacrifice Bunt has been laid down, because for big innings to happen, you need multiple base-runners. The Sac Bunt is playing for a single run. A one-run strategy would logically lead to fewer runs scored because it creates outs rather than base-runners.”
“Now that you are in the N.L., you’ll probably be confronted with the Sac Bunt much more often. Does this change your pre-game preparation?”
“Depends on the team, the players, lots of variables. But again, my job doesn’t change. Get guys out. Prevent runs from scoring. I like to keep things simple.”
But now you are also going to have to get up there and hit. How are liking that idea?”
“(Laughing) Well, I swung the bat a few times in Inter-League Play the last few years, so it’s not an entirely new experience. But yeah, it could get interesting out there.”
“Will you attempt a Sac Bunt if your manager asks you to?”
“Well, I’ll do what he wants, of course. He’s the boss. But I’ll probably break my freakin’ hand doing it” (laughs again.)
“One final question, Roy. Do you believe that when a team is facing a really tough pitcher, someone like yourself, that it just might make sense sometimes to try to scratch out a single run, because they know you’re going to be tough to score on, that you’re not going to give up too many runs in that game?”
“Well, you know, it’s kind of ironic if you think about it.”
“In what way?
“To use a Sac Bunt against a tough pitcher, whether it’s me or Lincecum or Carpenter, whomever, why would you choose to give up a free out to the toughest pitchers in baseball, the pitchers you can least afford to give up free outs to?”
“Good point, Roy. Final question: Is there ever a time, then, when a Sac Bunt should be used at all?”
“You know, if you don’t telegraph it to the whole ball-park. Try using the element of surprise. I mean, most guys square around before I’ve even gone into my wind-up. Instead of trying so hard to get yourself out, why not try to be sneaky about it? Maybe even get yourself on to first base. (laughs ironically.)
“Well, if the Official Scorer believes you were trying to bunt for a hit, it goes against the hitter as an 0-1 in the box score. An obvious Sac Bunt attempt doesn’t count against the batter, unless he strikes out trying. That’s the hitters motivation.”
“I thought his motivation was to win ball games. That’s mine.”
“Nuff said. Roy, thanks so much for being here today.”
“Thanks for having me, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.”
Well, folks, I for one can’t wait to see if Roy Halladay attempts any Sac Bunts this season. If his manager reads the transcript of this interview, he just might decide against it. In fact, he might decide against attempting any Sac Bunts at all this year.
Because, Conventional Wisdom aside, there really doesn’t appear to be any logical rationale at all for utilizing this time-honored, yet badly flawed, strategy.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Roy Halladay.
Next time on Stupid Manager Tricks: Part 3 – Using Your Closer ONLY in the Ninth Inning. (about one month from now.)