The afternoon after Robin Ventura's first bunt binge

April 25, 2012; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics shortstop Cliff Pennington (2) tags out Chicago White Sox pinch hitter Brent Lillibridge (18) during the thirteenth inning at O.co Coliseum. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Chicago White Sox 5-4 in 14 innings. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

Things often start to become a bit clearer in the afternoon after a binge. So maybe we can inject some more math and theory into the various bunt attempts by the White Sox in yesterday's game to drill down a little more into how acceptable each of them were.

In his defense to Jim singling him out, Chris Rongey said:

And he's right to a degree. But it's also a bit of a red herring. If the burden for every decision was "tell me what's right 100% of the time considering each and every possible scenario" the world would grind to a halt because we'd be wasting our time considering low probability situations.

So let's just agree at the outset that there are indeed times when, despite rather considerable thought about variables and outcomes, there's something(s) that get missed that can tip the balance one way or the other on close decisions. But on decisions that are not close, it is the very rare instance indeed where some variable(s) that were not considered will change the efficacy of that decision.

So after the jump, I'll go through whether the decision to bunt each time made sense. First, though, we'll have to show a bit of math.

I'm going to assume that Ventura's strategy of playing for one run was the correct strategy. This is something that should be non-controversial for extra innings and, based on a large body of research, is relatively non-controversial in tie games in the sixth inning and later.

Since I have neither the time nor the interest to calculate the various expectancies for the exact situations we're discussing, I'm going to rely on some research from a series by James Click at Baseball Prospectus from 2004 (here, here and here). It should be noted that he was using data from a higher run scoring environment (the early 2000s) than the current one. [For further reading on this topic, check out his chapter in Baseball Between the Numbers.] Click isn't some guy sitting in his basement, either. He's now the Director of Baseball Research and Development for the Tampa Bay Rays.

The chart below takes into account a variety of factors, including the success rate of sacrifice bunts in a given situation and that the opposing manager would likely intentionally walk the next batter or two after a successful sacrifice in a late-game situation where one run is paramount. The success rate, of course, is on average so it doesn't consider the particular bunting abilities of a batter. Except in extreme cases, ability doesn't greatly affect the analysis.

The chart assumes that batters will GIDP at the league average rate, the lead runner is not an adept base stealer and runners take the extra base at the league average percentages. It does not take into account the specific sequencing of batter characteristics but, again, this doesn't matter much in reality. Only in close decisions will the skills of the next batter matter and only if the skills of the next batter are at one extreme or another.

The chart gives the batting line that is the threshold point for when it makes sense for a batter to sacrifice bunt in a given situation (yes, we're aware that it's not possible to have a lower slugging than batting average - convoluted math reason: since the threshold for each metric has been computed separately, discrepancies like this are going to arise, most notably because the slope of the line of best fit is steeper when mapping SLG than when mapping AVG or OBP. ). If the batter is above the threshold, he shouldn't bunt. If he's below it, he should.


Situation 1 - Runner on 1st, 1 Out
Metric    Threshold    R-Squared
AVG         .199         .4532
OBP         .224         .6506
SLG         .174         .7928

Situation 2 - Runner on 1st, 0 Out
Metric    Threshold    R-Squared
AVG         .233         .6333
OBP         .282         .8688
SLG         .322         .7677

Situation 3 - Runner on 2nd, 0 Out
Metric    Threshold    R-Squared
AVG         .364         .7390
OBP         .450         .5197
SLG         .646         .4976

Situation 4 - Runners on 1st & 2nd, 0 Out
Metric    Threshold    R-Squared
AVG         .268         .5323
OBP         .338         .7738
SLG         .430         .5070

And here are the conclusions that can be gleaned from this:

When the probability of scoring at least one run is paramount (late in a close game, in a low run-scoring environment, or facing a dominating pitcher, etc):

  • Similar to the run maximization situation, only pitchers should sacrifice a man from first. Given that a pitcher would likely rarely be batting in this situation where runs are at a premium, this situation is likely to never occur.

  • Most of the league should sacrifice a man from second with no one out. While a line of .277/.350/.451 is slightly above average, recall that the skill set of the second batter due up should also be taken into account. On the whole, this finding is in the greatest agreement with conventional strategy.
  • When runners are on first and second, sacrificing is, again, not a good idea, a finding that is due almost entirely to the opposing manager's propensity to intentionally walk the next batter to keep the double play in order. This 10% decrease (approximately) in the scoring probability of the situation is enough to reduce the threshold across a great deal of current hitters.
  • If a manager is certain that the opposition will not intentionally walk Batter Two, the validity of the sacrifice is increased in these situations.

So now with that framework, let's talk yesterday's game.

Bunt No. 1: Alexei Ramirez bunts Alejandro De Aza to third after a leadoff double in the sixth inning.

We're looking at Situation 3. Ramirez is a career .277/.321/.418 hitter (a bit below league average). This season, he's off to his usual cool start with a .225/.247/.296 line. This is maybe a bit closer of a call given that it was still just the sixth inning but that consideration may be countered by the fact that the run-scoring environment today is lower. Since any less than average hitter should bunt in this situation... Verdict: Acceptable.

Bunt No. 2: Ventura calls for a suicide squeeze [with one out in the seventh inning], but Brent Morel makes an incomplete effort to put the bat on Ryan Cook's low-and-away slider, hanging Kosuke Fukudome out to dry.

I deliberately didn't include the fun matrices for suicide squeezes because this is indeed a case where there's a lot more going on tactically. Here, with one out and the weak-hitting Morel at the plate, a squeeze play doesn't strike me as a particularly bad call. Of course, if you don't get everyone on the same page as to whether it's a suicide or not, it becomes a bad call. Given Ventura's comments after the game, I have no idea whether Fukudome blew it, Morel blew it or the coaches blew it. So I'll just grade the idea. Verdict: Acceptable.

Bunt No. 3: In the eighth inning, De Aza shows bunt after a leadoff walk by Eduardo Escobar and gets drilled in the wrist area while pulling the bat back. Home plate umpire Jerry Layne rules that De Aza was trying to bunt. It's called a strike, and De Aza ends up striking out.

We're looking at Situation 2. It has to be a pretty bad hitter for it to make sense to bunt in this situation. De Aza is not a bad hitter. Verdict: Unacceptable.

Bunt No. 4: In the 10th, Escobar drops down an attempted sacrifice bunt after Morel leads off with a single. He doesn't bunt the ball far enough, and Kurt Suzuki throws to second for the forceout.

We're again looking at Situation 2. We don't have a great deal of historical performance on Escobar. But it's extremely unlikely that he's that bad of a hitter to be below the threshold. This is the American League so you pretty much never, ever should bunt with a man on first and no outs. Verdict: Unacceptable.

Bunt No. 5: [In the 13th,] Adam Dunn leads off with a double, and is replaced by pinch-runner Brent Lillibridge. After an intentional walk to Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski shows bunt against LOOGY-in-an-emergency Jerry Blevins. It's a breaking ball that's diving low, and Pierzynski pulls the bat back at the last moment. Anticipating a bunt, Lillibridge takes a massive secondary lead and gets caught way off the bag. Suzuki makes another strong throw to second and picks off Lillibridge.

We're looking at Situation 4. Pierzynski isn't that bad of a hitter, even against a lefty (career: .260./288/.384). Yes, Lillibridge shouldn't have been caught off the bag. But Pierzynski shouldn't have been bunting in the first place. Verdict: Unacceptable.

Bunt No. 6: [In the 14th,] Morel bunts Dayan Viciedo to second after he reached on an error to start the inning.

We're once again looking at Situation 2. Morel is a bad hitter. But, even in his current putrid state of .177/.227/.210, he's above the threshold. If you believe Morel is actually that putrid, this is a far less egregious decision than the others. I'll also concede that, if you believe he's that putrid, this could be one of those situations where some variable(s) not taken into consideration by these more general matrices may tip the balance. But I don't consider Morel to be that bad of a hitter. Verdict: Unacceptable.

_____

So this adds more specificity to the argument. I'm sure there will still be those who will argue the run expectancy charts and thresholds. And that's fine. But those people can't ignore the run expectancy charts and thresholds because those things set a baseline for the argument. That baseline can be shifted by adding or removing assumptions. But, again, it's rather unlikely that any assumption not included in these baselines will actually change what is the correct decision in a given scenario.

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