Examining First-Inning Sacrifice Bunts

The other day on our internal message board, the shockingly handsome David Laurila pointed out that the Reds had dropped down a sacrifice bunt in the first inning the other day, and that this had struck him as strange. In exploring the subject further, I found that the practice has not yet evaporated but this there is some hope that it is lessening this season. Or at least, there would be if not for the San Diego Padres, who piled up five sacrifice hits in the first inning during April.

Let’s break down the five plays, shall we?

Date Opp Batter Pitcher Situation WPA Run scored? Gm Res
1-Apr NYM Everth Cabrera Jon Niese 0-0, no outs, runner on 1st -0.016 No L 2-11
4-Apr NYM Will Venable Dillon Gee 0-0, no outs, runner on 1st -0.016 No W 2-1
15-Apr LAD Will Venable Chad Billingsley 0-0, no outs, runner on 1st -0.015 No W 6-3
16-Apr LAD Everth Cabrera Chris Capuano 0-0, no outs, runner on 1st -0.015 Yes W 9-2
19-Apr SF Everth Cabrera Madison Bumgarner 0-0, no outs, runner on 2nd -0.011 Yes L 2-3

In each situation, the sacrifice bunt came after the leadoff batter reached base. This is the situation in which we would expect to see a first-inning sacrifice bunt, so that fits. The only other typical early-inning bunting situation would probably be a sac bunt from the pitcher, and since the pitcher doesn’t usually get a chance to hit in the opening frame this is what we would expect. However, just because it is what we would expect to see doesn’t make it proper strategy.

Keith Law’s article this week is the latest to reinforce the notion that a team’s number-two hitter should really be its best hitter. Now, neither Cabrera nor Venable are scrubs offensively, especially when you account for the position they play. But neither is San Diego’s best hitter.

Among Padres position players with at least 20 plate appearances this season, Cabrera’s 117 wRC+ ranks sixth, while the slumping Venable sits 12th out of 14 with a 72 wRC+. Venable is obviously better than that — he has a career 104 wRC+, and has had at least a 99 wRC+ in all five of his major league seasons — but he’s certainly not the team’s best hitter. That would be Chase Headley. Now, he wasn’t available for most of these five games, but then the mantle probably falls to Yonder Alonso or Carlos Quentin.

What the Padres did in April borders on historic. Thanks to some help from the always gracious Jeff Zimmerman, we can see that few teams have laid down as many first-inning sac bunts in any month of the season (dating back to 1974) as the Padres did in April:

Team Month, Year # Sac Bunts
Angels May-75 6
Braves Aug-82 6
Braves Jul-74 5
Dodgers Jun-95 5
Expos Aug-75 5
Mariners Jul-80 5
Padres May-79 5
Padres Apr-13 5
Pirates Aug-92 5
Rangers Jun-78 5
Tigers Jun-80 5
Twins May-76 5

You’ll notice that the most recent team before the Padres here was back in 1995. Teams just don’t bunch together sac bunts in the game’s opening frame like that anymore. Perhaps Black was nervous about the Padres’ ability to score runs with Headley out. Perhaps Black was really apprehensive about the pitchers he was facing.

That could be particularly plausible in the last game against Madison Bumgarner, and the bunt in that situation wasn’t as bad considering there was a runner on second. But that still doesn’t make it the correct decision. In what was also sure to be a close game, it was imperative to try and jump out early on Bumgarner. Especially since Bumgarner has historically been at his worst in the first inning — both his 4.74 ERA and .798 OPS are his worst marks per inning (ninth inning excluded since he only has three career IP in the ninth). Yes, the Padres did plate the run, but they would go on to lose 3-2, and perhaps missed a golden opportunity to jump out to an early two-run lead.

The potential good news is that first-inning sac bunts have dropped precipitously in the early going this season, particularly in the AL. There were only 11 first-inning sac bunts in April — the five from the Padres, and one each by the Giants, Indians, Orioles, Pirates, Rangers and Reds. It’s still a little early to call this a victory against early bunting, especially since the practice has not vanished entirely from the game in the past 20 years. To wit:

1st Inning SH_G '94-'13

After spiking in 2004, a four-year downturn carried through 2008. In the past four seasons however, first-inning sac bunts had ticked back up. At the moment, the total has dropped to its lowest point since 1996, and it might be lower had the Padres not ripped off their near-historic month. It’s still early though, and even if the Padres taper off going forward, other teams may fill the void. But the practice doesn’t seem like it will evaporate entirely. Even in ’96, the other low point of the past 20 years, there were still 56 first-inning sac bunts. In the past decade, the range has been anywhere from 80-129 first-inning sac bunts a season. That is a lot for the so-called Moneyball age, and it is a number that didn’t really fluctuate at all from the decade previous to it.

Now, you’re probably thinking, 100 or so bunts, big deal. And perhaps you’re right. After all, on a percentage basis, sac bunts in the first inning occur less than during any other inning:

Inning # Sac Bunts % Sac Bunts
1st inning 3,756 6.0%
2nd inning 5,758 9.3%
3rd inning 8,372 13.5%
4th inning 5,264 8.5%
5th inning 7,780 12.5%
6th inning 5,780 9.3%
7th inning 7,418 11.9%
8th inning 7,088 11.4%
9th inning 6,754 10.9%
Extra innings 4,216 6.8%

But to me, the fact that it is even close to the percent of bunt attempts in extra innings — which is the ultimate time to be employing a single-run strategy — shows that these bunts are occurring far too frequently.

Perhaps this year will be the year where first-inning sac bunts go the way of the dodo. Perhaps the Padres’ April will be an isolated event, and the game will see 50 or fewer sac bunts. But perhaps this year just started slowly, and we will see this number rise to the levels of the past four seasons as we push deeper into summer.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Does your data set include pitcher bunts? If it doesn’t that was unclear to me. Those really need to be taken out to formulate a proper analysis…