Last night, the Dodgers trailed the Giants 2-1 in the seventh inning. Juan Rivera and James Loney led off the inning with back-to-back singles, putting the tying run in scoring position and the go-ahead run on base with nobody out. Juan Uribe, the #7 hitter in the line-up, was due up to hit.
Don Mattingly asked him to bunt, which, if successful, would have put runners at second and third with one out, bringing A.J. Ellis to the plate with first base open. With the pitcher’s spot coming up behind Ellis, an intentional walk would have been an obvious call, and the Dodgers would then have had the bases loaded with one out and Bobby Abreu pinch-hitting. A few years ago, that might have been a really nice situation. Now, though, Abreu is about a league average hitter, and hitters perform worse in pinch-hitting situations than in other situations. Abreu is also a guy who hits the ball on the ground more than most hitters, and he’s a good candidate to hit into a double play in that situation. Had Abreu only made one out and not ended the inning, the Dodgers would then have had Dee Gordon and his .266 wOBA at the plate. Essentially, Don Mattingly was willing to give up an out for the chance to have a pinch-hitting Bobby Abreu and a bad-hitting Dee Gordon try to put runs on the board.
However, Uribe laid down a lousy bunt, and Buster Posey turned it into a 2-5-3 double play. Ellis then flew out to end the inning, and the rally ended up without even turning the line-up over, much less getting any runs across.
The next inning, Abreu would indeed pinch-hit for the pitcher and draw a leadoff walk. The aforementioned weak-hitting Gordon laid a bunt down the first base line, and with his speed and the location of the ball between the mound and first base, he was able to reach safely as Vogelsong couldn’t transfer the ball to make a throw to first.
Again, Mattingly faced a situation with men on first and second and nobody out. Again, Mattingly ordered the batter at the plate to lay down a sacrifice bunt, and this time, Mark Ellis was able to get the job done. That moved runners to second and third with one out, but it also opened up first base with Matt Kemp coming to the plate. Mattingly essentially guaranteed that Matt Kemp would be intentionally walked rather than get a chance to swing the bat with the go-ahead run already on base. This is exactly what happened, as the Giants decided to avoid Kemp entirely, set up the double play and the force at the plate, and bring in their lefty specialist to face Andre Ethier.
Ethier is a career .245/.305/.364 hitter against left-handed pitchers. Left-handed batters have a career line of .221/.313/.312 against Javier Lopez, and 58.2 percent of their balls in play against him have been hit on the ground. For his part, Ethier has a 49.4 percent GB% on balls in play against LHPs, so if he did make contact, the likely outcome was that the ball was going to be hit on the ground. If he didn’t make contact – he has struck out in 20 percent of his plate appearances against lefties in his career – then the Dodgers would send Tony Gwynn Jr to the plate. Son of Gwynn is basically the outfield version of Dee Gordon and is also a left-handed hitter.
Gwynn wouldn’t get to bat, however. Ethier did hit the ball on the ground, and the Giants turned a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. Once again, no runs were scored. The Dodgers lost the game 2-1.
In Seattle, the Tigers led the Mariners 6-4 headed into the bottom of the ninth inning. Adventurous closer Jose Valverde issued a four pitch walk to leadoff hitter Mike Carp, and then after getting #9 hitter Michael Saunders into a 1-2 count, he lost him as well and walked the tying run on base. This brought left-handed hitting Dustin Ackley to the plate representing the go-ahead run.
While functioning as a closer, Valverde is really more of a right-handed specialist. Last year, right-handed hitters hit just .158/.213/.219 against him, while lefties managed a much more respectable .227/.356/.331 line. For his career, the gap is 19 points of batting average, 51 points of on base percentage, and 59 points of slugging percentage, and in 2012, he’s been nothing short of a disaster against lefties, walking seven of the 31 left-handed batters he’d faced to that point. LHBs have hit .400/.545/.833 against him this year, accounting for the entirety of his early season struggles. He’s still dominated right-handes the same as always, holding them to a .167/.250/.207 line.
Eric Wedge asked the left-handed Ackley to bunt the runners over, which would put the tying run in scoring position and bring the right-handed hitting Brendan Ryan to the plate. Brendan Ryan, he of the career .255/.312/.335 line. Brendan Ryan, the guy hitting .165/.289/.293 on the season, who just finished an 0 for 26 stretch that saw him get a few days off to clear his head. Wedge was willing to give up an out to bring one of the very worst right-handed hitters in baseball to the plate to face a pitcher who is one of the very best pitchers in baseball against right-handed hitters.
However, Ackley was unable to get the bunt down and struck out after getting behind 0-2 while trying to move the runners over. After issuing back to back walks to left-handed batters, Ackley essentially forfeited his at-bat, and the Mariners got their first out of the inning with the runners still standing on first and second. This brought up Ryan, and even with the switch-hitting Chone Figgins and the left-handed hitting Munenori Kawasaki on the bench, Wedge stuck with his shortstop. Ryan hit an easy ground ball to short for a game-ending double play, only Prince Fielder dropped the throw at first base and allowed the inning to continue. This brought up Ichiro Suzuki – another left-handed batter – to the plate with the tying run on first base.
On the 1-1 pitch, Ryan stole second base. The pitch was a ball, so the count was now 2-1. With a right-handed hitter on deck and Ichiro in a good hitter’s count against a guy struggling to get left-handed hitters out, the Tigers used the open base to put him on, and Valverde then got Jesus Montero to foul out down the right field line to end the game.
In the span of three innings, the Dodgers and Mariners attempted four bunts. The results – one infield single, two double plays, and a strikeout. Four plate appearances, five outs, one runner advanced from first base to second base, and no runs scored. The Mariners and Dodgers both lost.
“Neither one of those decisions I would look back and change. They have to pick between Matt and Andre, and if I can get Andre up there with the bases loaded, I’ll take it every day. He’s leading the league in RBI. I wouldn’t really change anything. We just have to execute, that’s all. First and second nobody out we have to try to get runners over and get them in scoring position. With Mark, I do it all the time. I’m still giving two guys a chance, but I don’t even need a hit. I just need to get a ball in the air. I have two guys that are basically leading the league in RBI and they have to take their pick.”
“It’s not automatic, but it depends on how the hitter’s swinging. In that situation, we’re looking to get Ichiro and potentially Montero at the plate. Eventually, they both got up there. Ryan had a couple of hits, he had seen Valverde eight times, had a couple knocks off him in the past. We just weren’t able to finish it off. But we did everything to give us every opportunity to win that game. We were just one hit short, and even Jesus put up a heck of an at-bat there.”
Leading the league in RBI. Had a couple knocks off him in the past. Just have to execute. You hear phrases like this uttered after games that are lost that didn’t need to be lost, as managers have learned that ordering a sacrifice bunt essentially shifts all the responsibility for success onto the player’s shoulders. Whether it’s a good match-up or not, they’re supposed to get the job done. They don’t even have to get a hit! Just get the ball in the air. It’s super easy, even against a ball released from here:
Mattingly and Wedge put on their teflon shields, pointed to the fact that managers have been doing this for hundreds of years, and laid the blame for these losses at the feet of their players. The problem is that they repeatedly took steps that made it less likely that their team would actually win the game, and had they just sat on their hands and done nothing, they would have had a better chance of congratulating their boys on a victorious come-from-behind win. Instead, they sat there and just waxed on about a lack of execution.
The only thing that needs to be executed is the sacrifice bunt from the playbook of Major League managers. It is not always the wrong move, but it is used far too often and in too many situations where swinging away is more likely to produce a positive result. At the front office level, every organization in the game is getting smarter. In some cities, the on-field personnel are utilizing facts and logic to better inform their tactical decisions. But, by and large, most Major League managers are still like Mattingly and Wedge, and they’re going to bunt regardless of whether or not it actually helps their team’s chances of winning.
We don’t live in 1953 anymore. We have access to more and better information than ever before. Teams are spending large amounts of resources to make better decisions to get improvements on the margins that may end up winning them one or two games over the course of the season. And yet, at the end of the day, most of these teams are still entrusting their in-game strategy to people who simply don’t understand the basic probabilities of the sport.
Maybe it’s going to take five more years. Maybe even 10 or 15. But at some point in our lifetime, teams are going to start hiring managers who understand that giving away an out should be a rare occurrence.
Bunting for a base hit, putting on a well-timed squeeze, beating an overshifted defense, having a pitcher move a runner into scoring position… there’s room for bunting in baseball. The frequency of sacrificing bunting that is prevalent now, though, is simply incorrect strategy, and the sooner it is removed from the sport, the better off Major League teams will be.
For more on when bunting is the correct call, I highly suggest MGL’s 6,000 word treatise on the issue from 2009.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.