Game-Changer: Elliot Johnson’s Failed Bunt

For those that missed the bunt I’m referring to, it came in the ninth inning on Thursday night. With runners on first and second and nobody out, Joe Maddon sent Elliot Johnson up in John Jaso’s post. Johnson had his eyes on bunting, and did make contact while squared around. Unfortunately, the ball hung in foul territory just long enough for a Red Sox fielder to get underneath and bring it on. Half of the sacrifice attempt was successful, as Johnson was out, but the more important part—advancing the runners—went unaccomplished. The next two batters would strike out, and ended the game.

There is a stigma around sacrifice bunts, and rightfully so, but this is one of the situations where I’m fine with it. That may seem counterintuitive, because the Rays absolutely needed two runs before they made three outs to continue the game, but you always have to take the run-scoring environment into account. Jonathan Papelbon is maligned, but throughout his career he has been a solid reliever who is harsh on righties. His OPS against right-handed batters is a little higher than usual this season (733), but without looking too deep, I’ll defer to the last three seasons, where he has held them under 650. Papelbon is no slouch against lefties either, thanks to his splitter, so the platoon advantage against him is non-existent either way—besides, the Rays had no lefties available off the bench anyways.

With Johnson coming in for Jaso, the best-case scenario is him laying one down the first base line and beating it out, thus loading the bases. The worst is hitting into a double play thanks to some overzealous baserunning. If Johnson had advanced the runners, then you should need a single to the outfield to tie the game. With Justin Ruggiano (and you can put Sam Fuld’s name here for the same effect too) and Sean Rodriguez coming up against a good pitcher, the odds of scoring more than two runs were diminished, making this into a low run-scoring environment where creating an out is less taboo because baserunners are unlikely to score anyways.

Not that you want to make an out there, but getting a single is more likely than an extra-base hit or multiple hits within the inning. People want to talk about how the Rays are so horrible when it comes to situational hitting, but that narrative is a crock. They have the 20th-best team OPS overall, 17th-best with men on, 22nd-best with runners in scoring position, 11th-best with a man on third and less than two outs, and 10th-best with a man on third and two outs. How is situational hitting a problem if the Rays are better in those situations relative to the league than they hit overall. If you have a problem with the offense, it should not be because of situational hitting, but hitting itself.

That’s why I’m okay with the bunt idea, even if it failed.

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