The bunt was fading, but it is has been dying much faster since 1973–thanks to the DH, Moneyball, Bud Selig, and SABRmetrics.
It was clear to serious baseball fans that, when Ron Blomberg stepped into the batters’ box in Fenway Park on April 6, 1973 at 1:53 p.m.–the first player to bat as a DH in MLB history–bunting would drop precipitously, since pitchers had accounted for the vast majority of them, employing sacrifice bunts before the DH was adopted by the American League.
When “Commissioner for Life” Bud Selig realized the profits to be made from TV revenues and understood that baseball needed to become “interesting programming” and that he could attract more casual fans with homers and high-scoring games, he welcomed the “Chase The Babe” chicanery sideshow and turned a blind eye toward the chemicals that fueled the homer explosion in the 1990’s.
Recall the images of the two national frauds: Sammy Sosa running across the outfield waving a miniature American flag and Mark McGwire disingenuously hugging the Maris family. These charlatans were sold to the American public by Bud Selig and his commercial cronies; it was an ugly charade that was the result of cheating, ego and greed. Shame on the PED users for staining the great game of baseball and hooray for the genuine Home Run Kings:
Ruth  in 154 games and Maris  in 162 games.
Shuckster Selig’s “Home Run Hero” Trickster Era diminished the getting-lost art of bunting and the larger dialectic struggle between the Old School, “small ball,” sacrifice bunt crowd and the Homer Happy Commissioner and Sabermetric Statheads led by Bill James, which rages on today.
Today Moneyball is the iconic tome that touted the successful application of the voluminous statistics created with the advent of computer databases and software to manipulate the numbers to predict outcomes on the field. [Never mind that all the fuss was about emphasizing the value of OBP (On Base Percentage) by the brilliant Billy Beane.]
The Old School boys, who still buy a program and score the game with a pencil say “Bollocks!” to all those formulas and reams of printouts, and when a Stathead uses the phrase “Well, on paper, it shows that…” they retort:
“But baseball isn’t played on paper—it’s played on dirt and grass!”
These Old School grads refuse to give up on stuff like hunches, Lady Luck, underdogs and miracles like the 1969 Mets beating the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
The Saber School of management is represented by the Oakland Athletics of Moneyball fame, back when Billy Beane and Tony LaRussa began factoring emerging date into their player drafts and daily game strategies; this was a stark contrast to the days of Billy Ball, when the brilliant rogue, Billy Martin, the truculent Oakland manager, played his hunches and won championships, as did his mentor Casey Stengel.
Yet, in 2013, despite Moneyball mania and his organization’s propensity for eschewing the sacrifice bunt, Oakland, Bob Melvin, manager tweaks the overall philosophy when the game descends into the fine grain moments:
“[On Wednesday] night, I had [Adam] Rosales bunting early in the game against [Justin] Masterson,” Melvin said. “Once you see a guy is pitching well and is tough on right-handers and you have a situation where you’re trying to score the first run of the game in the third or fourth inning, I might do it. But mostly for me, it’s toward the end of the game, when you only need one run to win the game.”
The late* Earl Weaver hated to give up one of his precious 27 out allotted to move runners up a base with a sacrifice bunt. Here are two versions of his philosophy:
PG: ”There is a place for the sacrifice bunt and it’s deep in your closet.”
XXX: ”You can take the sacrifice bunt and stuff it up your ass!”
As much as Earl Weaver was famous for waiting for the three-run homer, Gene Mauch was known for patiently playing “little ball.” Mauch’s teams led their league in sacrifice bunts in 15 of his 26 seasons and his 1979 Twins squad had 142 sacrifice bunts, the most of any team since the 162-game schedule began in 1961.
During his 26-year managing career, none of Mauch’s teams ever reached a World Series; Weaver was elected to the HOF with a .583 Winning Pct. and American League Pennants in 1969, 1970, 1971 and 1979 and his team won the 1970 World Series.
When current Red Sox coach Torey Lovullo interviewed for the Boston manager’s job last winter, he was asked about the sacrifice bunt, he framed the debate thusly:
“It’s about who’s coming up, the matchups, the pitcher, and how we feel about a big inning versus scoring first or scoring one run. I think certain organizations will tell you never to bunt, and certain organizations will say they’d love to win a game 2-1, because that’s what they’re built on. I don’t think there’s one way. My answer is to pay attention to the situation.”
Many years ago, “The Father of SABRmetrics,” Bill James, who now works as a consultant for the Red Sox, had this to say about the sacrifice bunt:
“Several sabermetricians have concluded that the sacrifice bunt is not a very good play, that generally speaking you’ll score more runs if you don’t bunt much than you will if you do. . .My problems with the studies is that they miss a key point…most managers already know that, and thus don’t use the bunt to try to increase their offensive production, but rather to try to preserve it through a weak spot in the batting order.
Almost all bunts are laid down by poor hitters–65% of all bunts in the NL last year were laid down by hitters hitting less than .250. This knowledge changes the equation. . .It seems obvious, but the people who have tried to refute the logic of a sac bunt too often haven’t dealt with it. Managers don’t bunt with the middle of their lineup.” [Bill James, 1983 Baseball Abstract]
After seventeen years of digesting and tweaking data, James updated his opinion:
“…the most critical element to manufacturing runs, in modern baseball, is speed. . .the bunt, yes, but modern teams don’t bunt that much, and it doesn’t lead to a lot of runs even when they do.” [Bill James, 2010 Baseball Abstract]
What does the latest data tell us about the effectiveness of the SAC bunt?
|Here are the outcomes for 2012, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Run Expectations data, on the average number of runs teams scored in the following situations.|
|First and second||0||1.44|
|Second and third||1||1.29|
[Source: Baseball Reference]
Here’s a look at the success rate of sac bunts since 1975:
[Source: Retrosheet, which maintains a database of play-by-play records for every major-league game.]
If we need proof that the sacrifice bunt is ineffective, consider:
From 1993-2010, if a team had a runner on first base with no outs; on average it would score .941 runs from that point until the end of the inning.
If a team had a runner on second base with one out, the average was .721 runs from that point forward.
The Saberheads say the only time a bunt makes sense is when you need one run and have a runner on second — or runners on first and second — with nobody out. In those situations, a successful bunt slightly increases a team’s odds of scoring in the inning.
Clearly, today, MLB organizations and their managers are accepting the proof provided by the stats; last season, there was an average of 0.34 sacrifice hits per team per game in the major leagues; in 1991, the average was 0.40; in 1971 it was 0.46, and in 1951 it was 0.50.
Giving up an out in exchange for advancing runners one base simply doesn’t add up.
In 2011, there were 2,346 sacrifice bunts attempted. The results were as follows:
- 1667 sacrifices
- 235 hits
- 72 reaches on error
- 44 doubles plays
- The rest were pop-outs, fielder’s choices, or other ineffectual outcomes.
It is possible that we may yet see another rare batter like Rod Carew, Ichiro Suzuki, or old Nellie Fox [White Sox, 1959] with the skill set to pull a drag bunt for a hit; surely we will never see anyone comparable to the greatest “one-legged player” in the history of the game and Master Nonpareil of the Drag Bunt, The Mick
Yes, the bunt was fading in 1972, but it is dying faster now; thanks to the DH, Moneyball, Bud Selig, and SABRmetrics.
The old men of the Old School have already lamented the passing of thick-handled bats, complete-game pitchers, silent scoreboards that let fans discuss the game between innings, pitchers like Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, who had the balls to back batters away from the plate with an inside pitch, daring “Jackie Robinson” steals of home, natural grass, and free autographs.
And now comes a time when pitchers, who sacrificed runners along, will fade into that iconic wall of tall corn stalks and, all too soon, but inevitably, these loyal fans of the greatest game will follow them.
*The colorful and occasionally outrageous man who believed three-run home runs, reliable up-the-middle defense and effective starting pitching were the essential ingredients of successful baseball died last January, 2013.
- www.baseball-reference.com › Manager Index and Register
View Earl Weaver Page at the Baseball Hall of Fame (plaque, photos, videos). Died: January 19, 2013 in … Cremated View Player Bio from the SABR BioProject
SABR Baseball Biography Project. Print … Earl Weaver’s road to the Hall of Fame started on a laundry truck. … That fall Weaver was prepared to leave baseball.
Earl Weaver: The 94 ejections he accumulated throughout his 18-year managerial career still … The question about gardening, that was a reference to the tomatoes Weaver and … to forget that Weaver has humble roots—he came to baseball as a working-class boy from the streets of St. Louis. ….. Baseball Biography Project.