To Bunt, Or Not To Bunt…THAT Is The Question!

If nothing else, the game of baseball is great for generating debates on in-game strategy.  Heated discussions about whether a pitcher should be pulled, the runner should be sent, or the hot bat should be taken out late in a close game for a defensive upgrade are just the tip of the iceberg of the dozens of strategy decisions that can keep fans arguing for days, and managers sleepless for nights.

During the past few games one of these controversial situations presented itself more than once to the Padres, and manager Bud Black.  In each case Buddy had multiple options available to employ, yet he chose the same strategy each time, and it “failed” in each case, creating fertile ground for second guessing, defending, and good all around discussion of the pros and cons of the choices that were at hand.

Many of you have expressed an interest in discussing the reasons for the decisions that were made, so let’s have one of those classic baseball deliberations right here.   We’ll try to keep the exchange cerebral, but as with most of these “sharing” of baseball philosophies don’t be surprised if an emotional confrontation ensues that spirals down into a donnybrook, every bit as personal and challenging to one’s manhood as a fastball thrown a purposely too high, and too tight.  Let’s set the table.

The Situation:  Your team is trailing by one run, at home, late in the game.  Your leadoff man reaches second base with no one out.  What do you do?  Your conventional choices are as follows:

. Let you next three hitters swing away with the hope that one of the three will get a base hit to drive in the game tying run from second.

2. Instruct your next hitter to move the runner over to third any way he can (bunt, or ground ball to the right side), thus giving your batter a chance to possibly drive in the run, or at a minimum moving the runner over to be in position to score from third.

3. Give your next batter the mandatory bunt sign to force him to sacrifice himself to get the runner to third base.

There is certainly an argument to be made for option #1 as you get three chances to get a base hit and drive in that run from second, and even #2 with the right guy at the plate.  However, my inner manager is programmed to default to option #3.  Why?

A. There are about 7 more ways to score from third base than from second, not the least of which is a sacrifice fly.

B. Bunting forces the defense to handle the ball in a pressure situation.  This can turn into a difficult play for some pitchers, especially right handers, and is not an automatic out.

C. Getting the runner to third base often forces the opposing manager to now play his infield in (play to win on the road), thus creating even more opportunity for your next batter to successfully get that run in on a ground ball that gets through, or even a blooper that lands on the edge of the outfield grass.

D. Having a runner on third may take away the ability for pitcher to throw his best put away pitch.  Often times pitchers will be hesitant to throw the nasty slider, curve ball, or split finger in the dirt with a runner on third for fear of throwing a wild pitch, thus making it more likely the batter will get a pitch he can put into play.

E. Under the best of circumstances a batter has a a 30% chance of getting a hit to drive in that run. He has a much better chance of hitting a fly ball, a ground ball that can get through (infield in), or a grounder that allows only for a play to first (infield back) that will score that runner.

I believe I am programmed to view the “must sacrifice” option as the initial go to option not only because intellectually that’s what I saw and was taught during my 20 year career, but because emotionally that was what I was feeling when I was on the mound in that situation.  As a pitcher I was always happy to see the batter swinging, not bunting, with a runner on second because I knew I could get him out!  When he squared around to bunt, on the other hand, I knew there was a myriad of things that could go wrong if he got that but down, and even if we did simply record the out at first, I now had multiple issues to contend with with a runner on third, as noted above.

As with every “rule” there are exceptions.  For example, in this scenario we are debating, I would likely defer to option #1 and let my next batter swing away to try to drive that run in from second if it were one of my best hitters – an experienced hitter with a track record of being able to put together solid at bats and drive in runs.  I don’t want to take the bat out the hands of a guy like that.

Another exception that might convince me to go to option #2, might be if I had a left handed batter at the plate who I had the confidence in to be able to pull a ball to the right side to possibly get a hit, or at least move that runner over on a ball pulled to the right side.  Or, again, an accomplished handler of the bat right or left handed that I had faith in could put a ball in play to the right side.

In an effort to make sure I was not being closed minded with my own acknowledged predilection to bunt, I sought council with other baseball minds I respect, with more experience at making those decisions in game situations than I, staying open minded to being convinced that the bunt was not the first option. In every case it was reconfirmed to me that the bunt is the default option, with the caveats of who was hitting, and who he was facing being the two variables that would also be factored into the ultimate decision.

So there it is.  My decision would have been the same as what Buddy opted to do in each of the similar bunt situations presented to him in recent games – bunt that man to third.  Not because, as some will predictably accuse, I am trying to defend Buddy, but because given the variables of that moment, that is what I believed the “Right” decision was to get that tying run in.  As it turned out, in each case the batter failed in his charge to get the bunt down safely to advance the runner…but that may be a discussion for a different post.

There’s my pitch.  Are you charging the mound?


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  5. Bob Scanlan
    April 18, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    Eat – they all practice everyday. Thing is, practice during BP is important, but there is no substitute for doing it under game pressure. The more they are asked to do it the better they should get.

  6. Eat2surf
    April 16, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Option 3… no contest.

    Too many things go wrong with option 1 or 2.

    The question should be, “How many bunts do our guys practice during bp?”

    If we are going to generate runs than we need to practice bunts more than the last pitch of bp.

  7. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Byron – Considering Jr. played here in recent years, and I’ve been getting emails everyday crying for Jr.’s return, I felt it necessary to delineate.

  8. Byron Lovelace via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 10:14 am

    hey scan, what would you say if you were bud black in that situation? – i think thats a fair question… any player on the roster.. pick one

  9. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Byron – What? Sorry, other than you calling me a “sissy” for asking a guy that is not a good hitter to do what he can to help the team win, i did not understand your other reference to Maddux.

  10. JoneZ
    April 14, 2011 at 10:12 am

    I agree, Scan.
    Specifically I agree with your assessment of the on-base situations that occurred with my Padres in those past two scenarios. Right now, we can’t hit water in our own park, and making the fundamental choice of putting down the sacrifice does a better job of increasing the team’s chance of securing a “W”. This “standing up for your players” option of either #1 or #2 is my choice only when my players have shown any reason for the faith. Certain hitters, such as Tony Gwynn, would make me opt for #1. But none of our hitters are making me recall T. Gwynn at this moment, so I play for the win. You play the game to win!

  11. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Andy – The poor execution by the players does not affect the fundamental soundness of the decision. Now clearly, as I stated in the article, if batter at plate is my #4 hitter who is a slugger and rarely if ever has bunted then that of course affects my decision. Each situation has it’s own variables. If each time I take all those variables into account and the best answer is “bunt”, yet each time the player can’t execute I am faced with a dilemma. Batter is not good enough a hitter to allow to swing, yet also can’t bunt…should he be on my roster? If I have multiple of these types of players, then it will probably be a moot point because your team will likely be losing 90+ games. I guess my point is, in general I believe the player’s inability to perform the needed assignment does not change what the correct baseball decision was to begin with – the outcome does not undermine the intent. If a manager knows the correct moves, but consciously and consistently needs to choose otherwise because he has no confidence that his players can perform the required charge, that is a VERY disempowering place to be and usually the harbinger for a very long season.

    • DJM
      September 23, 2014 at 1:44 pm

      I know this is an old thread, but the vast majority of baseball analysts dislike the sacrifice bunt, and it’s not because players cannot execute the bunt correctly (although many cannot) and it’s not because they disagree that there are 7 (or 9 or 25) ways to score from 3B that you cannot score from 2B, it’s because in order to get that runner advancement, you have to give up one of your precious outs. Baseball only gives you 27 outs, and spending one just to get one base doesn’t (usually) make any sense.

      The basic table is this:
      TABLE 1 – Expected Run Table (Actual data from runs scored after each situation, 1977-1992)

      AL 0 1 2 NL 0 1 2
      — .498 .266 .099 — .455 .239 .090
      x– .877 .522 .224 x– .820 .490 .210
      -x- 1.147 .693 .330 -x- 1.054 .650 .314
      xx- 1.504 .922 .446 xx- 1.402 .863 .407
      –x 1.373 .967 .385 –x 1.285 .907 .358
      x-x 1.758 1.187 .507 x-x 1.650 1.123 .466
      -xx 2.009 1.410 .592 -xx 1.864 1.320 .566
      xxx 2.345 1.568 .775 xxx 2.188 1.487 .715

      (The sac-bunt was an even worse idea in the era of higher offense of the steroid era, but today’s era is now back to being closer to the 1977-1992.)

      The relevant parts for a sac-bunt from first to second is:

      AL 0 1 2 NL 0 1 2
      x– .877 .522 .224 x– .820 .490 .210
      -x- 1.147 .693 .330 -x- 1.054 .650 .314

      Expected Runs of Man on First, no out: .877 AL, .820 NL
      Expected Runs of Man on Second, one out: .693 AL, .650 NL
      Loss of Runs: .184 AL, .170 NL

      Expected Runs of Man on First, one out: .522 AL, .490 NL
      Expected Runs of Man on Second, two out: .330 AL, .314 NL
      Loss of Runs: .192 AL, .176 NL

      In no case is the average runs scored higher after a sac-bunt than the situation before the sac-bunt. The out given up is so much more valuable than the base gained.

      That is not to say that a sac-bunt never works, or that hitting away always works–you’ll only score 1 more run on average for every 5-6 sac-bunt situations. The average AL team in 2014 hit 27 sacrifices, and the average NL team (with pitchers doing a lot more sacs) hit 61. With no bunting, there should be about 5-6 more runs for each AL team over the course of a season, and maybe 6-8 runs for each NL team (assuming their pitchers are still reasonably easy outs as hitters.)

      So, in the big scheme of things, bunting instead of hitting away is not a huge deal, maybe only 0.5-.75 extra wins each year. There is also a clear advantage if a weak-hitting pitcher is at the plate. There might be some value in bunting late in a game against a top pitcher (top 5) or top bullpen (top 3 in the league). Or maybe (and only maybe) late in Sept. or the postseason, when each game, and thus each run, is much more valuable.

      But generally, sacrifice bunts are a bad idea.

      • DJM
        September 23, 2014 at 1:50 pm

        (Another way to think about this is that even the worse MLB hitter, not counting pitchers, is about a .200 hitter, and the average hitter hits .250, and gets on-base 31% of the time. So 31% of the time, on average, you get the result you want by hitting away, without the cost of an out. Again, the cost of one of those three outs in an inning is just much higher than the gain of one base.)

        • DJM
          September 23, 2014 at 2:10 pm

          Here is the expected runs table for MLB 2014:

          runners 0 1 2 outs
          MLB 2014 000 0.456 0.240 0.087
          MLB 2014 100 0.819 0.479 0.196
          MLB 2014 020 1.039 0.623 0.292
          MLB 2014 120 1.402 0.862 0.401
          MLB 2014 003 1.286 0.886 0.332
          MLB 2014 103 1.649 1.125 0.441
          MLB 2014 023 1.870 1.269 0.537
          MLB 2014 123 2.232 1.508 0.646

  12. Byron Lovelace via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 10:05 am

    also, in this town we just say “Gwynn”… pls dont start saying “Sr.” i dont want that to catch on

  13. Byron Lovelace via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 10:00 am

    bob, dont be a sissy… no good hitter walks up to the plate with a “bunt” attitude…. i HATED that sign, a hit and run at least gives me a chance to do damage… as a pitcher i could see why you fear the bunt, apperently only Maddux could handle it?

  14. Jesse Fritz via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 9:56 am

    Mickey, Isn’t getting a single in Petco the same as any other park?

  15. Mickey Koke via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 9:21 am

    I cant stand it. However, this is one of the reasons I dislike the style of play in Petco park. Not that I do not appreciate small ball or fundamental baseball, manufacturing runs. I dislike giving up yourself in your home park because you realize how extreme the park plays just for one run.

  16. Andy Man via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Yes Maddux was Awsome!:)

  17. Andy Man via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Here’s my Question to you then Mr.Scan, up to how many times not succeeding the bunting a man over to 3rd with no outs do you finally say “Let’s Do this, go for it boys SWING!” I mean would you really let LUDWiCK try to bunt someone to 3rd! And yes I know 207 is horrible so maybe my Grandma should go hit for them.( Point is I love the Padres im a FAN to the end but at some point If it ain’t working & certain guys cant bunt you just got to Swing baby Swing!.)

  18. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:56 am

    BTW, Andy, Maddux was one of the best bunters I have ever seen…180 career Sac bunts!

  19. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Andy, if you like your chances with your team hitting .207 with RISP, then as opposing pitcher I REALLY like my chances of winning that game.

  20. Andy Man via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:49 am

    Maybe we should sign Gregg Maddux just to Bunt cuz our players suck at it! I think it depends alot on the players on your team & unfortunately our players can’t bunt & some players just shouldnt try it like Headly, just let the guy swing! It comes to a point if your players suck at it & you got a runner at 2nd with no outs, your gonna have to roll the dice & just let the boys swing!

  21. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Jesse – BTW, your point about needing 2 singles to score a guy from first makes my point perfectly for bunting guy to third…it takes 0 hits to get him in! How sweet is that, especially for a team currently last in the NL in avg.

  22. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Jesse – I know, I know…I wouldn’t want to face you. But everyone else (Gwynn Sr., Pujols, Ted Williams, Bonds on steroids) I’d go right after!

  23. Glenn Turgeon via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:40 am

    In the last couple innings of a tied or 1 run game, bunt. In the earlier innings then swing away. Also if your hitter has been struggling, bunting is a way to allow him to be productive for the team and give a second to exhale.

  24. Jerrah Noelle via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:40 am

    I’m so happy we have Dave Roberts back though, he is an excellent bunter and base stealer :) I’m sure he is working with the team on perfecting their skills in these areas.

  25. Jerrah Noelle via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:38 am

    I think it should depend on the player. With that said, Chase is a decent hitter, but has never been a pro bunter. I was so frustrated the other game when he was told to bunt and popped up on the first pitch! If he had had the chance to swing it may have been a different story for us. Just saying…

  26. Andy Man via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:38 am

    I go for #2 but with this team after seeing what I’ve seen the last few games I lean toward #3 cuz were doing really BAD at Bunting! Shoot my Grandma with no Arms in a wheel chair & one eye ball could bunt better right now .( “insert Sarcasm” my grandma actually is ok, she has both arms .)

  27. Jesse Fritz via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:36 am

    Bob, You know I would take your best fastball over the CF fence! One more thing… if the runner is at 1st with no out then the bunt makes more sense to me. It avoids the double play and the chances of getting 2 singles to score him are not favorable.

  28. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Don’t mind me, just trying to stir it up on a Thursday morning :)

  29. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Jesse, I love you too! If your team can’t get a bunt down then I have nothing to worry about. Just make pitches and I win the game. I think against you and Byron my record will be 2-0.

  30. Jesse Fritz via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I prefer to let the hitters swing away. When the bunting strategy is used often times the batter will pop out to the catcher, the runner gets gunned at third or a strike 3 foul ball is the end result. Even if you advance the runner to third on a sac bunt there is still a strong possibility he gets stranded because now hitters are pressing to hit a sac fly instead of doing what they are programmed to do, get base hits (although certain Padres are failing miserably in this area).

  31. Bob Scanlan via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:26 am

    As an opposing pitcher on the mound I love you!

  32. Byron Lovelace via Facebook
    April 14, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Depends on your lineup position… but I say Green Light!!! My personal favorite sign from 3b coach.

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