My first professional at-bat was a suicide squeeze. It was in the third inning and an unexpected call to break a 0-0 tie. After my manager, Nick Leyva (Cuz), relayed the sign it rattled my concentration for a minute because it was such an odd situation to bunt in. I didn’t have time to question his rationale, the runner was coming and I had to protect him.
As I trotted into the dugout and slapped hands with my teammates it became clear Cuz was testing me. He wanted to put me in a pressure-cooked situation to see how I would respond. My experience is nothing close to what Yoan Moncada is dealing with in the major leagues, but I can speak from a place of experience on the value of bunting.
Rick Renteria asked Moncada to square around and bunt in the fifth inning Saturday’s game against the Royals. The heralded prospect failed to execute the sacrifice and found himself down, no balls and two strikes very quickly. The Chicago White Sox twitter universe promptly took flight railing against Renteria on his use of the sacrifice with Moncada.
“Listen, (Moncada’s) a plus runner,” Renteria said. “He’s going to be able to use that as a part of his arsenal. I see a whole lot of home run hitters dropping bunts right now against shifts and things of that nature. I don’t think that art should disappear. We’re in the era of quote-unquote the long ball, but like I’ve said, sometimes you need to do certain things to kind of put your club in a better position.”
Indeed. If the defense must respect Moncada’s ability to drop a bunt down it opens holes in other situations. Not all sacrifice bunts are created equal and Moncada’s speed accelerates the defense and forces them into an uncomfortable pace. Considering when a player squares to bunt, a sacrifice hit by someone with excellent speed can easily turn into a clean hit.
Take Saturday’s instance for example. There were two men on in the fifth when Renteria asked Moncada to bunt. Accepted sabermetric wisdom (RE24) posits that 1.373 runs are likely to score if the next three hitters swing away. With Moncada’s set of tools and Yolmer Sanchez hitting behind him, the worst-case scenario in an executed bunt results in a 1.352 run probability.
Sanchez is batting .265 with runners in scoring position while advancing the runners eliminates a double play, forcing the defense to make a decision on whether to pitch to Sanchez or walk him and face the next batter. With Moncada batting sixth and Kevin Smith on the other side of Sanchez, I agree that the lineup was not constructed with this particular circumstance in mind.
However, given Moncada was one-for-seven in his first three games, Renteria was well within the bounds of baseball rationale to avoid a double play while seeing how the kid reacted under pressure. If Moncada doesn’t bunt and hits into a double play the probability of scoring tumbles all the way to .413.
Meanwhile, asking a rookie struggling to make consistent solid contact with the wheels to beat out even a poorly placed bunt, could double the scoring chances if he reaches base. The likelihood of scoring with the bases juiced and no one out is 2.282. And considering how infrequently pitchers field bunts and throw to a base, the White Sox could have tallied a run or two with a rushed throw past the first baseman.
Looking back over the last ten years, sacrifice hits (SH) peaked in 2011 and have steadily declined. In 2016, there were 1,025 sacrifice hits compared to 1,667 in 2011 at its peak. Both years witnessed the exact same league batting average (.255) with differing outcomes for pitchers.
If you evaluate sacrifice bunts with tunnel vision towards runs scored, the aforementioned run probabilities make sense. With 642 fewer sacrifice hits in 2016, the league scored 936 more runs. Runs per game during these two seasons were marginally different (0.20) while there were 201 more innings pitched in 2011. Meanwhile, pitchers were better around the league in 2011 with a 3.94 earned run average compared to 2016 (4.18).
The glaring issue and greatest indictment of the case against bunting is the number of strikeouts in those two seasons. There were 4,494 more strikeouts in 2016 than in 2011 (18.6 percent compared to 21.1 percent, and increasing each year).
Sacrifice bunts are useful when paired with productive outs. Runners at second and third with less than two outs should result in at least one run scored most of the time. A ground ball up the middle or deep fly ball scores a run and cashes in on the bunt call. Punch outs, on the other hand, have the opposite effect – it is a wasted out that belies the skill of being a hitter.
So, while hitters have a higher average on balls in play over the six-year span, a lack of contact in the game has skewed the practice of bunting.
Pragmatism/Statistics = Success
I confess that the traditional version of the sacrifice is archaic. Defenses can shift if batters square too early and there are plays designed to force batters to reveal their intentions. If hitters can wait until the pitcher lifts his leg or breaks his hands they should still have enough time to get in good mechanical position to put the bunt down. The time sacrificed on the front end is transferred to the back end since players should ensure they bunt the ball before breaking out of the box.
But this is a skill that has been lost. Bunting is easy and that’s why it used to move runners. Considering the league batting average is around the .250 mark, bunting offers a better chance at moving runners. Jeff Sulivan of Fangraphs observes that 49.7 percent of bunts from 2008 through 2013 were fair. He qualifies his findings by correctly stating that not all fair bunts are successful while his sample did not include attempts that were pulled back.
Therefore, if bunts were placed in fair territory almost 50 percent of the time and batted balls in play during that period resulted in a hit approximately 30 percent of the time (.298), and considering the panoply of adverse outcomes from strikeouts to double plays, bunting offers a solid chance at achieving its mission at a minor cost.
With strikeouts on the rise, bunts must necessarily resurface. The issue undermining the success of bunts is how often they are a part of the daily practice routine compared to hitting.
Hitting is widely considered one of the most difficult skills to master but catching isn’t, and that is essentially what is done with bunting.
“It’s embarrassing to see guys at the big leagues not be able to lay down a sacrifice bunt,” Larry Bowa tells Rob Maaddi of the Associated Press. “It’s embarrassing. But, it’s not a priority. Lots of teams don’t want to give away outs.”
Fangraphs’ Sullivan agrees with Bowa when he states,
“I’ve heard it from analysts, I’ve heard it from hitters, and I’ve heard it from pitchers. Bunting well is easier than swinging well. Swinging well is incredibly hard.”
Renteria’s White Sox are a severe deviation from the A.L. norm of baling and wailing since they rank much higher than the league average in sacrifice hits in 2017. Red Sox manager John Farrell appears to agree with Renteria’s approach suggesting that his players take advantage of what teams give up and drop a bunt down to counter defensive shifts. Add Angels manager Mike Scioscia to the chorus of bunt fans, but his stance on sabermetrics is well known by now.
Kevin Pillar has tried to bone up on his bunting skills and add it to his repertoire saying,
“It’s something that I want to have as a tool, something in my back pocket,” after taking extra work on laying bunts down on a backfield at Spring Training.
The biggest issue I see with bunting in the major leagues is an unwillingness to commit to what is asked of them.
Mickey Morandini agrees with me, saying
“you gotta want to bunt, you gotta want to get it down. It’s a mentality. You gotta understand it’s helping your team win and it’s an important part of the game.”
Unwillingness to accede to the greater good of the team compounded by poor technique and you have a recipe for disaster. But that doesn’t mean bunting should be scrapped. To the contrary, it only means it should be practiced more.
The other side of the ball offers a different lens to examine the utility of a bunt as well. Bunting forces the defense to make a play. Justin Verlander may have a World Series ring right now if he didn’t launch an easy toss to first down the right field line on a sacrifice bunt in the 2006 World Series. Verlander’s pair of World Series blunders centered pitchers fielding practice (PFP) back into the normal skills rotation and illustrated how remiss teams and players were about the impact of bunting.
“It was Detroit that brought PFP back into the spotlight after the 2006 World Series against St. Louis when Tigers pitchers made five errors, four of them on throws to first or third base,”
wrote Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com in 2010, of the slog pitchers endure during PFPs.
Pitchers fielding is anathema to their nature. There are some pitchers that can field their position but I’ve never played on a team above high school that let a pitcher catch a pop-up. As a position player, I was instructed to clear the pitcher out of the way unless the ball was practically already in their glove.
Which raises another point about decision making. In the Moncada example with runners at first and second with no outs, the bunt should be aimed at the third-base line. This forces the third baseman to make a decision on whether to charge and take the out or sit back and let the pitcher try and get the lead runner.
Yet, even if the bunt is not placed in the ideal location, runners should have decent enough awareness to establish a good secondary lead and lower the risk of being thrown out as the lead runner.
There isn’t enough patience or space here to cover the counter moves defenses have for this situation, but simply putting a bunt towards third base in this situation would get the job done.
Knowing your guys
“I want to know if I can do that again with him, or if he’s just a guy I say, ‘Forget it’ and let him swing away,” Roenicke said. “So it’s learning the personnel.”
Precisely Renteria’s intentions with Moncada on Saturday and again on Monday. If he can demonstrate the ability to put a bunt down it is something to add to his arsenal of offensive weapons. And what better time to tinker with players than in the middle of a sunken season?
Cuz tested me in my first at-bat and it was uncomfortable, but he found out early that he could count on me in key situations later in the season.
The game has been remiss of well-rounded players that can be productive in many ways. Lineups increasingly demonstrate a one-dimensional approach to the game by relying on the big fly. Sure, it is exciting to watch but the objective is to win and small-ball can be more exciting if understood properly.
The home run race of 1998 spawned the “chicks dig the long ball” era while ignoring the nuances so many fans enjoyed for so long. Steroids and PEDs infiltrated the game as players tried, and still try, to keep pace with what fans long for. Yet, calls by sabermetricians like Brian Kenny to stop bunting are hackneyed hot takes.
But there is hope. With players like Moncada and Mike Trout who can speed around the base paths and pepper the outfield seats, managers have the flexibility to shape lineups with bunting as a revised weapon.
So, cut Renteria a break and let’s see what kind of tricks Moncada has up his sleeve.