Game-Changer: Buntmania

Who am I kidding, David Price was the real game-changer tonight (or Ben Zobrist on offense), but allow me to take some liberties with the series name in order to make a point about the sacrifice bunts.

The Rays have sacrificed four times over the last two games: two by Elliot Johnson, one by Johnny Damon (although he attempted another), and one by Sean Rodriguez. Casey Kotchman and John Jaso attempted sacrifice bunts during Saturday’s game as well, but neither succeeded. I was actually in favor of those two bunting, because the Rays only needed one run to win the game. These other bunts? Not as much.

So often, folks will point to the results of a bunt and pretend it works. Thus far, the Rays have scored one of the four runners they bunted to the next base –or 25 percent. Take a batter, any batter, say Matt Joyce. Through this point in Joyce’s career, he has a hit in 21 percent of his plate appearances –not at-bats (which would be batting average), but plate appearances. Joyce has a career .246 batting average, yet his “success” rate is about as good as the Rays on these bunts. Of course that’s a bad comparison since Joyce has about 620 more samples to draw from than the Rays bunting, but my point is: these bunts haven’t worked.

Or have they?

Bunts are often described as a good way to ensure one run. Both in the mainstream tone (“One run, no less”) and in the sabermetric snark (“One run, no more”). In reality, though, bunting a guy to second base doesn’t guarantee a run –far from it. According to Tom Tango’s run frequency chart, teams with a runner on second base and one out score one run –no more, no less—23 percent of the time and zero runs 59.4 percent of the time. Teams with a runner on first and no out score a run 17.6 percent of the time. The bunt raises your likelihood of scoring a run, yes, but it doesn’t guarantee it.

But look at the Rays success rate (25 percent) versus the above frequency (23 percent). This is success. One run in four tries is success.

Look, the lineup tonight was bad. It really was. Any lineup that features E. Johnson and Kotchman is going to get a few sideways glances from me –and that is without talking about Evan Longoria, Johnny Damon, and B.J. Upton being out too. It’s understandable if Joe Maddon is operating under the idea of a low-run scoring environment and wants to give Price as many runs as his team can squeeze out.

Still, why even bat Johnson second if the team has zero confidence in his ability to get on base or –at the very least—avoid a double play? If nothing else, why not give Fuld a chance to steal second base before bunting? Yes, Fuld is zero for his last three in stolen base attempts, but caught stealing are less taboo in a low-run scoring environment because it is unlikely the runner would score anyways.

Maddon rarely has his guys bunt in suboptimal situations and when they do, it’s usually an attempt to bunt for a hit. Over the last two days, I’m not so sure those haven’t been sac bunts. That’s a little distressing, because Maddon is smart enough to construct strong lineups and avoid falling into truisms. If he’s suddenly playing things like Dusty Baker, then perhaps the lineup is in worse condition than I think.

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