Whenever Chicago White Sox manager Ricky Renteria calls for a bunt or brings in a new pitcher from the bullpen, there is always scrutiny. One of the ramifications of that scrutiny is the assumption that Renteria is a placeholder for a true manager — much like his tenure with the Cubs, when Renteria was tossed aside like ceviche leftovers once lord-god-king Joe Maddon became available. On the South Side, names like Joe Girardi and Omar Vizquel have been bantered about as future White Sox championship managers.
However, when it comes to the bunt, is Rick Renteria making decisions the rest of the league makes? Does he really call for bunts more than other managers?
First off, let me preface the research by letting you all in to my thinking and process. In terms of the importance of mangers, I believe they do matter, but that their decisions on game day do not make for a significant factor over the course of 162 games. The most important aspects of managing in the regular season is to create a clubhouse culture that allows players to be comfortable. Game day decisions do matter much more in the playoffs, but of course, Renteria does not have experience with that ... yet.
Second, because of the differences between the American and National Leagues, I will only compare Ricky to the other 14 AL teams. Since the NL does not have the DH, stats like bunting attempts lean heavily towards NL clubs. Keeping the research just to AL teams, all managers are under the same rules, making the data more consistent.
Lastly, I will be using median, not average, as my middle point to gauge where the White Sox are compared to other AL teams. Since there are bound to be outliers on the high or low end for some, maybe all, of these counting stats, the median is best to find a true middle. With this in mind, when I mention that the Sox are X% above or below the mean, my calculation is the Sox attempts divided by the league median times 100. Much like wRC+ or OPS+ (or any stat with a plus, really), 100 is the middle point — anything below 100 being below the median and anything above 100 is above the median.
It already feels like a hallowed tradition: Despise any sort of bunt attempt that Renteria calls for. Even on the gamethreads here, no matter the outcome of the game, bunting draws everybody’s ire. Quite frankly, that is a good thing. But does Ricky really call too many bunts? Well, it is a two-part answer.
Since Renteria took the job as Sox skipper in 2017, the Sox have bunted 122 times according to FanGraphs. That 122 includes sacrifice bunts and bunt-for-hit attempts, placing the White Sox fourth in the American League. That means the White Sox bunted 40% more than the median of other AL teams. The three teams ahead of the White Sox, are the Twins, Mariners, and Rangers, and the two teams trailing the White Sox are the Rays (by just two attempts) and Cleveland (six). Tampa Bay is generally considered one of the more metric-friendly and, purportedly, groundbreaking teams in baseball. Cleveland’s skipper is Terry Francona, who is regarded as one of the better managers in baseball. Yet both Cleveland and Tampa are right where the White Sox are in bunt attempts.
So, who are putting down the most bunts for the Sox?
First, let’s start in 2017, where the Sox attempted the second-most bunts in the AL with 71, or 48% more than the median. Six Sox batters attempted five or more bunts in the 2017 season: Adam Engel, Yolmer Sanchez, Leury Garcia, Tim Anderson, Omar Narvaez, and Tyler Saladino. Out of all of those players, only Narvaez had a 100 wRC+ or better, although Sanchez (95) and Garcia (98) were close. On the other hand, Engel attempted 15 of the 71 bunts and had a wRC+ of 38 that season. In fact, only three Sox hitters with a wRC+ over 100 attempted a bunt: Nicky Delmonico attempted three (and reached base on all of them), Melky Cabrera tried to put down two, and Jose Abreu just attempted one. So if we include those players and Narvaez (some of the team’s best hitters), they only attempted 15% of the bunts for the White Sox.
In terms of how 2017 playoff teams bunted, the only team ahead of the Sox in bunt attempts in the American League was the Twins with 79. The Indians had the fourth-most, with 57, as they won the AL Central. The other wild card team, the Yankees, finished ninth (41). The Astros were a spot below them, with just one fewer bunt attempt, as they won the World Series. The Red Sox rounded out the last of the AL playoff teams and had the third-fewest bunts in the AL (32). The median for playoff teams in 2017 was 41, and Ricky’s Sox were 73% above that playoff median — that does not bode well. However, keep in mind that playoff teams by definition are better at hitting in general.
While in 2017 only 15% of the bunts attempted by the White Sox were by above-average hitters, of Minnesota’s 79 bunt attempts, 30% of them were by hitters with a wRC+ 100 or better. The other AL Central representative in the playoffs, the Indians, had 35% of their 57 bunts attempted by above-average batters. The Yankees, who made it to the ALCS, had 61% of their 41 attempted bunts by above-average hitters. The World Series champion Astros had 83% of their bunts attempted by above-average hitters. Finally, the Boston Red Sox had only 28% of their 32 bunt attempts by above-average hitters, the least among all the playoff teams — but still 13% more than the White Sox.
From 2017 alone, there should be two takeaways for us Sox fans. One, Renteria does call, or created a culture that allowed there to be called, too many bunts. Second, White Sox hitters are bad, and when good hitters came to the plate, they did not bunt as much. Both things can be true and it is possible, especially for Engel, that bunting was Renteria’s best option for the other 85% of bunts.
But on to 2018, to see if the story is the same.
Just on raw numbers, the story is actually different. From 71 bunt attempts in 2017, the Sox’s bunt totals in 2018 fell to 51. This time, Ricky’s Sox were the median of the 15 AL teams. However, the median did rise, from 48 in 2017 to 51 in 2018. Engel again attempted the most bunts on the team, and the number of bunts for above-average hitters fell. In 2018, only 8% of the bunts attempted by Sox batters had a wRC+ 100 or above — a 7% drop from 2017.
Only one playoff team had more bunts than the White Sox last season, and that was the Indians. Now, the 90-win Rays and the 89-win Mariners also attempted more bunts, but they just missed out on the playoffs. Compared to the actual AL playoff teams, the Sox attempted 50% more bunts than the AL playoff median. Even with a 23% drop in bunts from 2017 in the AL, every 2018 playoff team had more bunt attempts by above-average players than the White Sox, including the Indians (who had the least, at 19%).
So does Ricky really call a bunt too often? Well, in 2017 it seems like he did, but 2018 saw “improvement” across the board. What does not help Renteria is how bad Sox hitting has been. When good hitters do go to the plate, they do not bunt — and that includes the White Sox in 2017 and 2018. Renteria is just having Engel, Sanchez, and Leury Garcia carry the brunt of the bunting, and none of them are good hitters.
But the two-season sample we have is both encouraging and discouraging. The Sox are bunting less, but it seems like they are forced to bunt more than other teams because of how bad their hitters are. They went from bunting 40% more than the median in 2017 to being right at the median in 2018 — a welcome trend. However, they still continually bunt more than playoff teams — not so welcome. I suspect that it is not all on Ricky, as he is trying to manufacture runs any way he can as he is saddled with truly terrible hitters. But Renteria is still bunting at too high a rate.
Does that mean he won’t last long enough to manage the eventual White Sox World Series champions? Only time will tell.