Juan Pierre isn’t afraid to run. That’s maybe the biggest reason the Los Angeles Dodgers signed him to a five-year, $45 million deal in the 2006-07 offseason. That’s one of the reasons the Chicago White Sox decided to take Pierre off Ned Colletti’s hands, although the Dodgers had to pay more than half the remaining money.
In that sense, he’s living up to his billing (if not his salary). Pierre leads the American League this year with 29 steals (and his 78-percent success rate is fine). He’s the active leader in stolen bases by nearly 100.
And yet, five times this year, with Pierre on first and nobody out in late-inning situations, Ozzie Guillen has called for a sacrifice bunt to get him to second.
Guillen isn’t alone when it comes to this self-defeating strategy. In a game against the White Sox on Wednesday, Kansas City manager Ned Yost did the same thing with Chris Getz, with a one-run lead in the eighth inning. Not only is Getz one of the game’s smartest basestealers (34-for-38 in his career, in 153 games), but he had successfully run on A.J. Pierzynski earlier in the game.
Did I mention Scott Linebrink was on the mound? In his time with the White Sox, baserunners have been successful on 17 of 18 attempts with Linebrink on the mound.
That’s another element that’s confusing about these particular moves. Often, the pitcher is a closer or setup man who usually enters games with the bases empty and isn’t quick to the plate. Back in May, Don Wakamatsu chose to bunt Ichiro Suzuki to second in the ninth inning off Fernando Rodney; a basestealer hadn’t been caught on Rodney's watch since 2007.
Ichiro didn’t score in May. Neither did Getz on Wednesday. There have been several other such cases this season (and these are only when the sacrificing batter actually got the bunt down).
Guillen just happens to be the biggest offender, and it doesn’t help that he got lucky the last time he tried it on June 24 against Atlanta. With no score in the bottom of the eighth, Pierre led off with a single. According to Win Expectancy, that increased Chicago’s chances of winning by 6.4 percent. With Takashi Saito and his inability to hold baserunners on the mound (opponents are 16-for-19 off Saito in his career), Alexei Ramirez followed with a first-pitch bunt, which lowered the chances of a White Sox winner by 2 percent. Ramirez did eventually score ... thanks to Paul Konerko's two-run homer.
Obviously, the bunt didn’t really come into play, but since it didn’t end up costing the Sox, it won’t exactly discourage him from trying it again.
Guillen and Pierre are the perfect posterboys for putting an end to this call. There may be some rare collision of circumstances that make it more palatable -- a pitcher who can hold runners like Mark Buehrle; or an extreme groundballer with a GIDP machine at the plate -- but in most cases, the pitcher is inherently unable to hold a runner close. If the guy at first makes his money because he can steal second, it makes no sense to forfeit his greatest strength when it's so well-suited to take advantage of an opponent's key weakness.
For baserunners, making the first out at third is worthy of a fine in kangaroo court. Maybe they can start hitting up the manager for cash when he makes the first out at the plate when no sacrifice is needed to move the runner. This might motivate Guillen, at the very least. He already has to sock away cash to pay MLB for post-ejection fines. How much more could he afford?