And The Worst Bunt of the Year Goes To…

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Carlos Beltran!

I would say congratulations, but this probably isn’t the kind of award you want to win. So, let’s just skip the festivities and skip right to the recap, shall we?

In last night’s game between the Dodgers and Cardinals, Los Angeles held a 3-1 lead heading into the bottom of the 7th inning. Zack Greinke was pitching well, but he’d thrown 93 pitches and after facing a pinch-hitter for Adam Wainwright, was going to have to roll through the top of the batting order for the fourth time. This is danger territory, the type of spot where rallies are frequent and leads are often blown. Pitchers are less effective as they get deeper into the game and hitters perform better against a pitcher they’ve faced multiple times that day. The recipe for a comeback was in place.

And Greinke really hurt himself by walking the light-hitting Adron Chambers, who had pinch-hit for Wainwright leading off the inning. That walk took six pitches, and ended with Greinke throwing three straight out of the zone to put Chambers on first base. This brought up Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals All-Star second baseman, and the beginning of the best part of St. Louis’ offensive attack.

On the first pitch, Carpenter did this.

Carpenter Bunt

It went foul, so Greinke’s 100th pitch of the night officially went down as strike one. Given that he didn’t show the bunt until the pitch was on the way, the fact that he represented the tying run, and then that he immediately proceeded to swing away on the 0-1 pitch, it’s probably a pretty safe assumption that Carpenter was trying to bunt himself aboard, perhaps by reading a poor defensive alignment by Dodgers third baseman Juan Uribe. While we give bunting a lot of grief around here — and by the subject of this post, you can bet that there is more bunting related grief to come — bunting your way on base when you represent the tying run is pretty great if you can do it.

Carpenter didn’t get the bunt down, though, and then after fouling off the 0-1 pitch, he was down 0-2 to Greinke, but managed to take a couple of change-ups out of the zone before he pulled the 2-2 pitch for a single to right field. That put runners at first and second with nobody out and Carlos Beltran coming to the plate. Beltran is an excellent hitter, posting a .368 wOBA this season, and because he’s a switch-hitter, he got to face Greinke with the platoon advantage.

Greinke has not quite been himself this year, and the entirety of his struggles can be summed up in his performance against left-handed hitters, who have hit .289/.357/.507 against him this year, good for a .375 wOBA. RHBs have posted just a .263 wOBA against Greinke, and the primary driver of those splits has been due to the long ball. All 10 0f the homers Greinke has allowed this year have come off the bats of left-handed hitters.

A home run, of course, would be the absolute best result of this match-up. Down 3-1 on the scoreboard, a Beltran homer would give the Cardinals the lead with six outs to go, and allow them to hand the ball to Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica to close out the game. Even a double would probably tie the game with Carpenter’s ability to run, or at least put the tying run on third base with nobody out. Beltran has 19 home runs and 22 doubles/triples this season, so an extra base hit was certainly quite possible based on the match-up.

Instead, Beltran did this.

Beltran Bunt

It was the second time all season Beltran had laid down a bunt. Dating back to the start of the 2007 season, Beltran had bunted just six times in the last seven years. This isn’t something he does regularly, and as you can see by the attempt, it’s not something he’s particularly great at. He got a cutter diving in at his ankles, so instead of pushing it up the third base line to try and get on base as Carpenter did, he ended up pushing the ball right back to Greinke for an easy force out at first base.

Greinke couldn’t get out Adron Chambers after getting ahead of him with two strikes. He then failed to put Matt Carpenter away as well, and his pitch to Beltran was the 104th he’d thrown on the night. He threw a pitch that, had it not been bunted, would have easily been called ball one. He attempted to fall behind a very good left-handed hitter who represented the go-ahead run in the bottom of the 7th inning, but Beltran just wouldn’t let him.

Instead, he got a free out, and while runners moved into scoring position, the Cardinals rally began to die right then and there. The following two hitters, Allen Craig and Matt Holliday, are both right-handers. Don Mattingly had Ronald Belisario, a right-handed specialist who has held RHBs to a .196/.269/.292 career line, warming up in the bullpen. With a pair of right-handers coming up, he made the easy decision to replace his tiring starter with a fresh reliever, making a St. Louis rally even less likely. Belisario would go on to get a run scoring groundout from Allen Craig that made the score 3-2, but Matt Holliday would hit into an inning ending groundout, leaving Carpenter stranded and the Cardinals still trailing by a run.

They would never really mount another challenge, and the Dodgers would win by that 3-2 margin. The fact that Craig and Holliday couldn’t drive in Carpenter, and that they went on to lose, isn’t what made the bunt a bad decision. We’re not the-ends-justify-the-means kind of folks. A move isn’t good or bad based on what happens immediately after a decision is made. In this case, this bunt would have been a terrible idea even had the Cardinals gotten a game-tying single from either Craig or Holliday.

The historical data makes this pretty clear. The Cardinals win expectancy went from 38.0% to 36.3% on Beltran’s successful sacrifice, and those numbers do not account for the actual players in the confrontation. The fact that Beltran is a significantly better than average hitter, facing a tiring starting pitcher who has had some serious problems against left-handers of late, pushed that match-up even further in St. Louis’ favor. A bunt in that situation could certainly be justifiable given the right batter/pitcher match-up — for instance, if this was when Adron Chambers had to pinch-hit for Wainwright — even though the successful sacrifice lowered the team’s win expectancy, but Beltran versus a tiring Greinke was definitely not the kind of situation where win expectancy overstates a team’s odds of sustaining a big rally. This is the kind of situation where win expectancy is underselling a team’s chances of coming back, based on the personnel due up for St. Louis at that time.

Sometimes, one could make a game theory argument for bunting even when it appears to not be mathematically correct at the time. For instance, if Uribe was playing back too far or not paying attention, the odds of a bunt going for a hit would have been higher than usual, which changes the calculation. However, Carpenter had just alerted the Dodgers to the fact that perhaps Uribe was giving them too much room, or that St. Louis saw the bunt as a potential option to reach base. While we don’t have the camera angles to show where Uribe was positioned, the element of surprise was somewhat mitigated by the fact that Carpenter had just tried to bunt four pitches earlier.

And, of course, the element of surprise only works if one is able to actually execute the surprise. Beltran is not a guy who bunts regularly, and even had he caught Uribe napping at third, his inexperience at getting a bunt down made a successful bunt unlikely to begin with. The element of surprise is a nice benefit, but it should not be enough of an enticement to coerce a good hitter who doesn’t bunt very often into trying to sneak his way on base.

Bunting is engrained in baseball’s lore as “playing the game the right way”. I would imagine that Beltran — who wasn’t available to the media after the game — probably believes he acted unselfishly, giving up the chance at RBIs and glory for the betterment of his team’s chances of winning. Based on Mike Matheny’s responses to questions about the bunt in the postgame press conference — ““Sometimes we put a bunt on,” he said. “Sometimes we do it on our own.” — it seems pretty likely that Beltran was bunting on his own.

But this was not “playing the game the right way”. This was a bad tactic born out of a small ball mindset that shouldn’t apply to hitters of Beltran’s quality, and certainly not while facing a tiring pitcher who has had a problem giving up extra base hits to left-handed hitters this year. The sacrifice bunt isn’t always the wrong call, but this is a glaring example of why the culture of bunting is a significant problem.

Carlos Beltran should not believe that a bunt in that situation is a good idea. It’s not, and the evidence against giving up an out in that spot is overwhelming. Beltran took a chance at a big inning that could have easily resulted in the Cardinals tying the game or taking the lead, and turned it into a small-ball affair that led to St. Louis scoring one run that didn’t change much of anything.

When you play for one run, you’re only going to get one run. Earl Weaver was right about a lot of things, but maybe that was his most accurate belief about the game. Down by two, Carlos Beltran played for one run. It worked, and his team still lost.

The overuse of the sacrifice bunt will eventually die out, as more information leaks down to the field and the next generation of players grow up in an era where win expectancy tables aren’t relegated to nerds in the back office. The Cardinals have those nerds, and they are probably the premier organization in the sport right now, but Beltran’s bunt shows the continuing disconnect between the on-field personnel and even a great organization’s decision makers. Eventually, there will be more symmetry between the two parties.

For now, though, Beltran’s bunt will stand as 2013’s biggest reminder of why small ball should not be considered “playing the game the right way”. Playing the game the right way should maximize your teams chances of winning; Carlos Beltran’s bunt did just the opposite.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

Austin Jackson had a pretty bad bunt last night as well as he hit himself with the ball outside of the box creating his own out.

10 years ago
Reply to  JEB

I was just about to post this same comment! I had never seen that happen in a game before.