|Tuesday, August 20
Surprise, surprise: Bunting may be OK
By Rob Neyer
In yesterday's column, I wrote
But does the bunt make sense, ever? Yeah, it can. When you've got a pitcher batting. A weak-hitting pitcher. Otherwise, it rarely makes sense. And I'm basing this contention not on some abstract statistical formula, but on a completely practical application. Tom Tippett, the wizard behind Diamond Mind Baseball, looked at actual play-by-play data to see if sacrifice bunts increased or decreased a team's chances of scoring runs.
Well, that's not what Tippett found at all. My sloppiness -- and yes, my predisposed biases against the bunt -- led me to remember what I wanted to remember, rather than what Tom actually said and wrote.
Rather than summarize what Tom really did say -- I'd probably just screw it up again -- I'll let him speak for himself...
I just saw your column, and while I'm very grateful for the mention, I'm afraid it's not what I was trying to say. Here's a short version of what I meant to get across in the talk (obviously without as much success as I'd hoped, since more than a few very smart people thought I said something else):
Tom has the facts and figures to support all of this, but I won't reproduce them here because he's planning to write all of this up in greater detail for the Diamond Mind site.
The point here is that if you include all possible outcomes of the bunt -- that is, the errors and the hits, along with the various outs -- there are many situations in which the sacrifice attempt is a good move.
Interestingly enough, Bill James anticipated this conclusion five years ago in his book, The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers. He explored some of the same issues that Tippett has, and decided that there probably are situations where the bunt makes sense. And James concluded by suggesting, "The rest of us need to keep an open mind."
I agreed with Bill then, and I agree now. Wouldn't it be a hoot if someday we discover that the 2002 Oakland Athletics failed to win the West because they didn't bunt enough?
Interesting comment on Palmer and Glavine's performance with the bases loaded. One thing you might want to look at is the number of plate appearances each pitcher has had in these situations. Here are Glavine's career numbers with the bases loaded:
IP AB H 2B 3B HR BB K HBP SF AVG 3300 268 63 9 1 0 17 53 1 22 .235
I don't have the numbers for Palmer's entire career (Retrosheet hasn't released 1965-66 and 1970-73 yet), but for the years I do have, here are the numbers:
IP AB H 2B 3B HR BB K HBP SF AVG 2490 104 18 3 0 0 7 17 0 11 .173
The striking thing about this is how rarely Palmer even found himself in a bases-loaded situation. During the years I have, he faced a batter with the bases loaded on 122 occasions, or once every 20.4 innings. Glavine has been in a similar situation 308 times, or once every 10.7 innings. In terms of batting average, Palmer was much tougher than Glavine in these situations, but strictly from the point of view of keeping the ball in the park, I'd warrant that Glavine's achievement is already much more impressive than Palmer's.
Keep up the good work and talk to you soon.
For those of you who don't know, Tom regularly engages in some of the most illuminating research out there, thanks to his hard work and his facility with the play-by-play data that Retrosheet has released.
And finally -- not to open up a can of reactionary worms or anything -- I was both amused and saddened to see the following headline:
Workhorse Burnett's season may be over
Hmmm ... "Workhorse" and "season may be over" ... Might there be a connection here?
And then you click on the link, and you read quotes like:
"We would never do anything to hurt him. With the future the guy's got? No way." (Marlins manager Jeff Torborg.)
"We didn't see this coming. He has been a workhorse all year." (Marlins general manager Larry Beinfest.)
In A.J. Burnett's last five starts, he's thrown 132, 128, 93, 123, and 117 pitches. And I'm keeping an open mind: maybe there's not a connection here.