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Midday bunting rant: The Nationals' Michael Taylor did what last night?

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Just when we think all should be well in the world with the Nats clinching the NL's best record, bluelineswinger still has something to complain about. #StopBunting

In his first season as the Nationals manager, Matt Williams has led a talented team to the best record in the National League. The Nats clearly respect him and play hard for him, but his tactical management sometimes leaves me scratching my head
In his first season as the Nationals manager, Matt Williams has led a talented team to the best record in the National League. The Nats clearly respect him and play hard for him, but his tactical management sometimes leaves me scratching my head
H.Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

Some people are never satisfied.  As many of you know, I'm one of those people.  First off, let's celebrate the Nationals clinching the best record in the National League behind a complete game shutout from Doug Fister today! Just as importantly, old bluelineswinger has to find something to complain about.  Let's set the stage for a decision that Matt Williams made in Thursday night's 3-0 win over the Mets.  But first.....

If you are new to Federal Baseball, I'm a proud card carrying member of the #StopBunting club

Most of you who will take the time to read my midday bunting rant are already well aware of that.  I feel that there are two reasons that a player should ever bunt.  Here are the reasons:
  1. He's attempting to bunt for a hit
  2. He's a pitcher
While I'll spin some words saying that I understand what Williams was trying to do in this scenario, Michael Taylor doesn't fit either criteria.  He was clearly attempting to sacrifice an out for 90 feet.  He squared early and wasn't attempting to drag (or even place) the bunts, so his emphasis appeared to be making sure that he got the bunt in play more than trying to set himself up in a situation where he was catching the opposition by surprise.  He is an outfielder, and thus not a pitcher.

With that out of the way, you know that I wasn't a particular fan of the bunt regardless of other factors that I'll get into later.

The Situation

  • Bottom of the 8th inning
  • Nats lead 3-0 with nobody out.  Nate Schierholtz on second, Tyler Moore on first
  • Michael Taylor batting. Danny Espinosa on deck. Pitcher's spot in the hole.

Understanding what Williams is trying to do by bunting here

Let me start the rant by saying that I do understand what Williams plans to accomplish by bunting here.  By giving up an out, he expects to move both runners up 90 feet.  If successful (if you believe giving your opponents a free out can be considered a success), the next batter will come up with two runners in scoring position and just one out.  This accomplishes a few different things:
  • As the Nats already held a three run lead, it would almost certainly force the Mets to draw their infield in.  This is a situation that can't be overlooked.  Why? It improves the chances of a ground ball getting through.  The infielders wouldn't have the reaction time or range that they do when they're playing back at normal depth.
  • It puts two runners in scoring position, which means that a single likely scores two runs (well.... the trail runner was Tyler Moore, so maybe not).
  • It sets things up so that a productive out would score a run.  A medium depth fly ball would likely score Schierholtz from third base.  Even a ground ball that wasn't right at an infielder would give Schierholtz a pretty good chance to score provided he was going on contact.
I'm not in Matt Williams' head, but the typical logic that we usually hear behind bunting a player over to third with less than two outs is the third option.  There are a lot more ways that a runner can score from third base (sac fly, RBI ground out, wild pitch, passed ball, balk) than second base.  There's some truth to that, though I'd almost always rather let my hitter swing away.

Let's get specific, though.  What made bunting in this particular situation such a terrible decision?  There were several reasons.  Let's break them down.

Gonzalez Germen was pitching... and looking like Gonzalez Germen

Germen has walked 14 batters in 30.1 innings.  That's a little under a batter every two innings (4.16 BB/9).  In other words, he's not exactly known as a control pitcher.  The first two batters in the inning showed that last night was no different.  Germen actually only threw two pitches prior to Taylor stepping into the box.  The first was right down the middle to Nate Schierholtz, who tagged it for a double.  The second got away from him and hit Tyler Moore.  He showed a lack of command on the first pitch and a lack of control on the second pitch.

Simplified: Germen isn't a particularly intimidating pitcher.  He has shown control problems in the past.  He sure showed that he doesn't necessarily have great control tonight based on the fact that he just hit the previous batter.

Who is in the on deck circle?

If a manager's goal is to give away an out to move a runner to third base with less than two outs, he's banking on the next player at least being able to put the ball in play and make a productive out.  Barring extreme circumstances, I don't think this is a particularly good idea no matter who is in the on deck circle.  The fact of the matter is that the player in the on deck circle last night was Danny Espinosa.

I would imagine that most of you who are coming to read my midday bunting rant at Federal Baseball (a Washington Nationals community and support group) are Nationals fans.  This would probably make you pretty familiar with the type of hitter that Danny Espinosa is.  Just in case you're not familiar, let's talk about Danny Espinosa's biggest weakness.

Among non-pitchers, Danny Espinosa is second worst on the team (behind, ironically, Michael Taylor) with a 33.5% strikeout rate this season! Espinosa does not have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but if you'd like a league-wide reference, the major league leader (?) is Chris Carter of the Astros at 33.0%. Yes... If Danny Espinosa had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would have the worst strikeout rate in the league!

So.... The logic here is that Williams wants to set up a play where contact would score a run and a single would likely score two runs.  That might not be quite as flawed if, say, Denard Span (team low 9.9% strikeout rate) was the next batter.  When the next batter strikes out once in every three at bats, it makes absolutely no sense.

Taylor's at bat

Germen threw five pitches to Michael Taylor.  Here's the sequence:

  1. Ball low
  2. Pitch low in the strike zone, bunted foul
  3. Ball high and away
  4. Pitch that almost hits him, bunted foul (self defense... couldn't pull the bat back)
  5. Borderline pitch in the up and in quadrant, bunted foul
Given the same sequence (flawed argument of my own, since the at bat wouldn't necessarily have played out the same way), if Taylor took a good, patient at bat, he may have walked on five pitches.  The fifth pitch which he struck out on was a little above the belt and right at the inner edge of the zone.  A walk here would have given the Nationals the bases loaded with nobody out.

Result

I don't like to look at results based thinking.  As I mentioned in the paragraph directly above this, we can't say that things would have played out exactly as they did afterwards if Taylor had gotten the bunt down (or taken a regular plate appearance).  Regardless, here's what happened.
  • Taylor struck out bunting foul.  Neither runner advanced.
  • Espinosa, whose contact rate I bashed above, grounded to first base.  The Mets turned it into a fielder's choice by getting Moore at second for Out #2.  I was fuming too much about the bunt to pay attention to whether or not Schierholtz would have been likely to score on the play.
  • Ryan Zimmerman pinch hit for Matt Thornton and lined out to first base.
Choosing to bunt there not only took the Nats out of a potential big inning.  It significantly lowered their chances of scoring a run when Taylor couldn't even effectively give himself up properly.