This is an excerpt from "Smart Baseball" by Keith Law. It appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 24 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
IF YOU'VE SPENT any time on Twitter, you've probably come across fans and analysts criticizing manager decisions to bunt, from the band Puig Destroyer's crude but effective song "Stop F---ing Bunting" to my own term #smrtbaseball, an allusion to a Simpsons episode in which Homer calls himself smart, spells it S-M-R-T and then sets the house on fire. Here's the main reason for all of this vitriol: In the majority of situations when it's used, the sacrifice bunt is a terribly stupid play.
Let's highlight some specific scenarios when you might see the bunt applied. With a man on first base and no outs, an MLB team's probability of scoring at least one run in the inning in 2015 was 0.499, or roughly 50-50. Pushing that runner up to second in exchange for an out reduced those odds to 0.447, or just under 45 percent. So not only does the bunt reduce the number of runs the team could expect to score in that inning (from 0.84 to 0.65) but it reduces the team's odds of scoring any runs at all. Remind me again what the point of the bunt was?
A manager's decision at a specific moment to call for a bunt should include other factors, especially the biggest one of all: who's at the plate. If we're playing in a National League park and the pitcher is batting, his odds of getting a hit or drawing a walk are not that high, so a sacrifice bunt attempt is mathematically sound. (It's also a damn good argument for putting the DH in the National League because I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game because she really wanted to see guys drop some sac bunts.)
Aside from the pitcher batting, there are two other major exceptions to the whole "stop bunting" thing. One is the bunt for a hit, which is entirely separate from a sacrifice bunt -- that is, a bunt for an out. If the batter is quick and/or a good bunter and has a reasonable chance at a hit from a bunt attempt, then the attempt itself is often a smart move, especially since a good attempt can yield a wild throw or other misplay that might result in further advancement. The other exception is when a hitter attempts to take advantage of a poor fielder, such as when Miguel Cabrera played third base for the Detroit Tigers to accommodate Prince Fielder at first. Bunting on a third baseman who's slow or who has an erratic arm has a higher rate of success for the team -- reaching on an error won't reflect positively in the hitter's individual statistics, but it would help the team improve its outlook for the rest of the inning, since an errant throw would advance the runner(s) farther and perhaps allow a run to score.
However, the probabilities and expected outcomes of a sac bunt make some manager and player tendencies particularly maddening. Cleveland shortstop Francisco Lindor, the runner-up in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2015, led the American League with 13 "successful" sacrifice bunts despite appearing in only 99 games. His OBP, which excludes those sac bunts entirely, was .353, so in 35 percent of his other plate appearances he reached base safely, as opposed to none of those 13 times he bunted a runner over. He did this while typically batting second in the order, one spot ahead of the team's best hitter, Michael Brantley. And those bunts, on the whole, did not help the team score more runs.
In six of the 13 instances here, the runner advanced on the bunt never scored, and in three of those six instances Cleveland lost the game in question by just one run. In five of the remaining seven instances, the runner advanced by the bunt would have scored anyway.
That's 11 of 13 so-called successful bunts that went for naught, and in all 13 situations, Lindor didn't give himself a chance to get on base safely and create another run-scoring opportunity. He reached once on a fielding error, instead of the four times in 13 we'd expect to see him reach base, perhaps even driving in a run or two himself. Lindor apparently liked to do this on his own, which is somewhat appalling for a player who's otherwise praised for his baseball acumen -- he might really think he's doing something positive. Someone needs to show Francisco the numbers and ask him the question every GM should ask his bunt-happy manager: "If what you're doing makes us worse off, why are you doing it?"
From the forthcoming book Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball, by Keith Law. Copyright © 2017 by Meadow Party LLC. To be published April 25, 2017, by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.