WITH A NOD TO MONEYBALL
Bearing witness to far too many bunting misadventures spawns SewerBall?s ode to the wisdom of Moneyball
Moneyball is one of my favorite books. I will spare you the platitudes about how it opened my eyes to the need for a smarter economic approach to baseball because, while interesting, I am not a general manager. I shall also spare you that part about how Moneyball made me rethink the metrics used to evaluate players because, while it may be interesting reading, I am not a scout of talent either. What I am, above all, is a fan who watches more than his share of games. Few of the things I have observed are more maddening than the sacrifice bunt and that is a big reason why I liked Moneyball. Moneyball ? or more precisely, sabermetrics, which is the general theme that runs throughout the book ? confirms with data(if you follow up the ibids) what I always suspected about certain baseball strategies that have been utilized for ages. Its pages ooze a strong distaste for stealing bases, hit-and-runs, and, among other things, sacrifices. It?s the sacrifice bunts that I always found to be a perfectly good waste of an out, or sometimes two.
I have heard many coaches, commentators, and insiders drone on about the supposed importance of sacrifice bunting. I never bought into this. More than anything, these words struck me as assumptions that seemed to be treated as fact even though they were never studied, subjected to testing, or actually shown to be beneficial to a team?s prospects of winning. Like many things in life that are repeated often enough, they just become a perceived form of truth, like the ?polar bears are dying? myth or nutrition experts telling us for years that multivitamins are essential for continued good health.
And so, coaches all through the system ? high school, minors, pros ? will insist on perpetuating a self-defeating strategy, but, in so doing, will be comforted by the thought that just about everybody else out there shares their belief system and thinks they are making the right move. Whether or not you are a proponent of the small-ball approach, one thing that ought to be undebatable is that most of the players in today?s game attempting sacrifice bunts are about as proficient at the act as Bruce Jenner?s plastic surgeon is at the craft of the subtle makeover. I can?t exactly say it?s a lost art since I really can?t ever remember a time in my lifetime when the practice of sacrificing was executed with flawless repetition. Players inclined to lay down a bunt just don?t seem overly skilled at the drill. Frankly, the sheer concept of a sac isn?t all that absurd were it not for how spectacularly bad players are at deadening the ball and keeping it down. As it stands, the sacrifice bunt has a very low success rate. If batters could pull it off with relative ease and consistency, then trying it on occasion might at least be considered in the name of getting that all-important baserunner one base closer to scoring.
Baseball is a game of attrition and so it follows that giving up an out while refusing to make the pitcher work for it is a dubious proposition. At the very least, making the pitcher deliver a couple more offerings while running up his pitch count seems like the more shrewd approach. It goes a small way towards wearing him out and getting into the bullpen. Relief pitchers, by and large, have been relegated to the bullpen because they aren?t starter material so why not keep pecking away. Besides, outs are at a premium. There is only a finite amount of them to give away before your team runs out of chances. And as we have seen, the attempt at a bunt might very well erase the same baserunner we are trying to advance. But let?s say that we do advance him with a superb sacrifice bunt. Then what ? One of the next two batters still has to drive him in. Don?t the odds of giving three batters that chance instead of two increase the probability of producing a run ?
Even though botched bunt attempts continue to snuff out one rally after another, game after game, year after year, it strikes me that the popularity of bunting to advance the runner stems from the simpleminded lessons we all acquired from youth baseball. These unsound lessons are then passed on through a player?s progression from one level of baseball to the next, but without a whole lot of thought given to them. Sure, it sounds selfless and benevolent to give yourself up for the greater good of the team, a lesson carried on from the earliest days of kindergarten when you were instilled with the doctrine that sharing is king. However, in a rational world, there should be no room for sacrifice bunts, especially by players who are really bad at bunting a ball.
When my team is staging a late-inning rally, chipping away until they finally find themselves within a single run, I have to watch like Malcolm McDowell at the end of ?A Clockwork Orange? when I see the hitter squaring around to give himself up. This wouldn?t necessarily be as terrible an idea if the sacrificial lamb was a pitcher whose chances of reaching base were lower than those of a kamikaze pilot returning his plane in one piece, but, no, I see this from virtually all hitters up and down the lineup. Most of the games I watch involve the Blue Jays ? yes, I?m talking about American League baseball here. As much as I frown on sacrificing, it makes marginally more sense in a National League game to take the bat out of the pitcher?s hands when we know statistically that practically nothing good can come from a pitcher swinging a bat.
The successful sacrifice is almost an aberration these days since it is so rarely practiced and, when attempted, usually so poorly executed that I?ve actually seen it start a double play more than a handful of times. Bunting to get on base, however, is an altogether different matter. If a hitter has decent speed and notices the third baseman playing behind the bag a couple of steps, then bunting for a single can seem like a logical choice.
I?ve witnessed the failed bunt often enough that I can no longer escape the conclusion that this is a strategy which simply causes far more harm than good. I?d love to cite actual numbers here to bolster my argument, but I laid off SewerBall?s entire statistical analysis department. Nonetheless, let me also assert that my contention about bunting being detrimental is far more than mere anecdote. I mean, I know for a fact that there are a lot more people walking around today with tattoos than there were 20 years ago. Do I have empirical data to prove this ? Of course not, but trying to argue the opposite would seem as well advised as spitting into the wind. Thus, SewerBall being the low-rent operation that it is precludes me from producing actuary tables and hard data to augment my thesis, but I think that something far less than empirical evidence is required to prove the folly of baseball?s least prudent practice: sacrifice bunting.