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Bunting: does it increase the chance for winning?

It is not about emotions, as in love it or hate it or something in between. It should be about whether sacrifice bunting contributes significantly to winning, including by how much and under what circumstances. What follows is rather simple reasoning but I believe it suffices in order to illustrate why teams should be bunting more rather than less. However, the reasoning laid out herein depends greatly on the batter having the ability to bunt successfully, that is, to move runners. I will have more on this aspect later. Just so the reader does not think the writer is unaware of the multitude of factors that should go into a decision to sacrifice bunt, here is a list along with a brief explanation. The level of expertise of the readership of these posts assures me that most are already familiar with how situation affects the decision-making. Nevertheless, whether or not a sacrifice bunt is warranted depends on:

  1. The score. Being either ahead or beyond by 3 runs or more lowers the efficacy.
  2. The inning. Early in the game factor number one is less important. For example, if a team is behind by 3 runs in the 3rd inning then a no out sacrifice bunt with runners on 1st and 2nd may be warranted.
  3. Bunting skill level of the batter. This one needs no explanation.
  4. The hitting skill of the batter, including on base percentage and slugging percentage. Obviously, a top-level hitter in a good streak should not bunt, usually. The match up with the opposing pitcher is included here, so this factor might better be listed as hitting skill of batter against a given pitcher.
  5. The hitting skill of succeeding batters. An obvious example is the eight hole hitter with runners on base and less than 2 outs. With the pitcher up next, normally bunting is not warranted.
  6. The number of outs. Generally, a no out bunt makes more sense, such as with a runner at second, than a one out bunt, but circumstances could alter this thinking.

I have left out a few other factors, believed to be of much less importance generally.

These are the major ones I can think of at the moment. The combination of these circumstances should dictate whether a sacrifice bunt is called for. Trying to quantify a valid probability of success can be difficult; especially since the sample size is often small for these factors individually, and even more so in combination. The statistics compiled for Fangraphs help, but some of the important factors are not included. OK, enough ‘complexity', which can obscure some basic and obvious general truths.

A batter who has an on base percentage (OBP) between .250 (25% chance to advance runner) and .350 (35% chance) has a 65 to 75 percent chance of not reaching base and not advancing existing runners. By including ‘productive outs', perhaps 20 percent of the outs advances the runner, so the batter has an additional 15 percent (or .15) chance to advance an existing runner by swinging away, to give an overall estimate of 40 to 50 percent for most hitters. I assert that virtually any major league player, excepts perhaps the most unskilled pitcher in batting mode, can learn to successfully bunt, to move runners, 75% of the time. Using these assumptions, which no doubt will not be accepted by the dedicated ‘swing away in most circumstances' proponents, there is a 25 to 35% increased chance to move runners by bunting instead of swinging away.

Now, here are some of the arguments against bunting even if my assumptions are accepted. Since an out is being traded for advancing one or two runners into scoring position it means the current batter will never score and the inning will end sooner, precluding someone later in the batting sequence from batting that inning. So the chance for a bigger inning is reduced but the chance to score 1 or 2 runs increases via bunting runners followed by a productive out, hit, or walk. If the candidate bunter is a power hitter then bunting precludes 2 or more bases being advanced for himself and all existing runners. But, all in all, in a large number of situations sacrifice bunting is worth giving an out away, as long as the bunter has a high proficiency, and is not a premier hitter.

Ultimately, effective offense is about moving runners from home back to home through three other bases. Hits, walks, and a few other ways move runners (the batter and/or existing runner(s)). An accomplished bunter should be able to achieve one or two bases for his team about 75 percent of the time, with all of these bases moving existing runners into scoring position (‘valuable bases").

Now a word about achieving a sacrifice bunt success rate of 75 percent. Bunting is a bit like parallel parking. At first blush, it seems difficult until the procedure is broken down into a series of finite steps that almost anyone can follow. With a good instructor, and armed with the steps to successfully bunt, I am convinced that the physical skills of virtually all major league players is sufficient to achieve a 75% success rate. Just to make this more tangible for those whose opinion about bunting has been formed by watching many batters fail miserably at it, here are some of the basics:

  1. Batter should turn around completely and face the pitcher.
  2. Hold the bat parallel to the ground through the whole process.
  3. Do not attempt to bunt with any pitch above mid-chest (popups often result) or otherwise not near the strike zone.
  4. Position the bat so the pitch makes contact with bat, not the other way around. Never jab at the pitch, since the bunt often either pops up or moves too quickly to the charging fielders. This is sometimes called having soft hands at contact.
  5. Be knowledgeable about what bases are occupied and how the infielders are positioned, in order to direct the bunt right or left by angling the bat appropriately with respect to the vertical plane.

These steps are not difficult to follow, but admittedly failure can still occur when the pitcher is adept at getting good ball movement either sharply downward with a breaking ball or rising from mid-chest upward with a rising fastball. Perhaps for certain pitchers bunting should be avoided, but in most of those cases hitting that pitcher is usually corresponding more difficult also.

An organizational culture that values bunting starts bunt instruction lower down in the organization and continues each spring training at the major league level. With instructional time dedicated to it, resulting in a high success rate, bunting is a tool that should be used more.

For many current players, who are seen to violate the above rules of bunting, I concur with some of my fellow fans who say ‘STOP BUNTING'. However, we should be saying 'LEARN TO BUNT'.

When the bats are slumping, and the score is close (sound familiar), bunting and other ‘small ball' methods take on more importance.

In conclusion, here is a question whose answer reveals whether a person is a confirmed anti-sacrifice bunter or there is still hope for you: It is a situation with no outs, man on second, score either tied or one team is up by one, and the inning is after the sixth. Assuming, as I have, that the hitter is an accomplished bunter (i.e., better than a 75% success rate) then what do you have the hitter do? If there are more than a very small number of circumstances when you would not order a bunt then do not apply to be manager of my team :)

All right, sabermetric experts, where am I wrong in my general conclusion about sacrifice bunting? A good debate on this could be fun.

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