Did the Braves make a costly sacrifice?

One of the most hotly debated issues in baseball in the post-Moneyball era has been on the game strategy of the sacrifice bunt, but the validity of this common strategy has been questioned for some 20 years now, dating back to The Hidden Game of Baseball by Pete Palmer and John Thorn.  Their use of Expected Runs Tables showed that in most cases, the sacrifice bunt is a poor option for increasing run scoring.  Palmer called it simply “a bad play.”

Twenty years later, the sacrifice bunt is an even worse play.  Outs are scarce, but teams needed fewer runs to win ballgames 20 years ago.  In today’s run environment, outs are even more precious, and they’re rarely worth giving up for the advancement of a runner.  I do mean “rarely,” though, because there are still situations in which a manager should consider a sacrifice bunt.  There are two main reasons for this, which I will go into now.

First, the ERTs (samples can be found at Dan Levitt’s 2006 analysis) are based on averages, and they’re actually different based on the current spot in the batting order.  The National League is especially subject to this variance, with the pitcher batting ninth.  Since the expected run value of a situation decreases with a bad hitter at the plate (or bad hitters due up), the bunt may not always be a bad play, when you use it with a poor hitter.

Second, maximizing the number of runs scored in an inning isn’t always the manager’s top priority.  Scoring at least one run (as opposed to the most runs possible) may be the objective, as it would be in the extreme example of the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game.  Luckily, the tables can be manipulated to reflect the probability of at least one run scoring.  I suggest following the link above to see what I’m talking about.

So, you might be wondering what all of this has to do with anything that’s going on right now.  I’m glad you asked.

Sunday afternoon, the Braves had taken a 9-6 lead in the eighth inning over the Mets in New York.  Brian McCann came to the plate, and there were runners on first and second with no one out in the inning.  Bobby Cox asked Brian to bunt, a proposition which would show the Braves pretty much treading water in WPA (a .001 increase).  The basic ERT is less forgiving, showing an expected decrease of .082 runs based on that move.  Looking at it by lineup position, though, you can actually give Bobby a break for this one – it shows a .020 increase in runs scoring.

On the other hand, you could argue that McCann is much better than your typical #5 hitter.  He is an outstanding run producer who is patient, hitting for average and for power.  The value of allowing him to hit is probably greater than forcing him to bunt, especially given that he’s not experienced as a bunter and that the success rate for sacrifice bunts is not 100%.  I think it’s closer to 90% (correct me if I’m remembering that one wrong, Doug), and this is a more difficult than average bunt situation.

I say all of that to say that I would not have chosen to bunt with McCann in that situation.  It wasn’t important to get a single run with a 9-6 lead, and he’s possibly the best hitter on the team.  To add injury to this insult, McCann hurt his finger in fouling off the bunt attempt, and he sat out last night’s game before pinch-hitting and making the final out in the 9th.

I was furious at Bobby when this happened, even though 1st and 2nd with no one out is perhaps the best bunting situation of them all.  Still, the right player for that move was not at the plate, and the consequences of this decision (the true extent of McCann’s injury) are not yet known.

I’ve cooled down a bit since then (who says that McCann wouldn’t have hurt himself swinging the bat?), but I still wanted to examine it a little closer.  I think it wasn’t the best decision given the situation, but it’s probably splitting hairs to say much more.  After all, McCann could use a day off every now and then, and there are probably bigger bones to pick with Bobby’s strategy right now.

So, how about those platoons?

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6 thoughts on “Did the Braves make a costly sacrifice?

  1. I can’t say that I actually remember what the success rate was. My guess would be that it might be a little bit lower than 90%, even. Of course, the whole concept might be difficult to define. For example, what do you call it when a hitter tries to bunt, bunts foul twice, and then swings away with two strikes?

    Still, if it’s very much less than 100% at all, it seems pretty clear that bunting is the wrong play. Especially considering that the successful bunt put runners on 2nd and 3rd with 1 out, which meant the Mets could walk Francoeur and bring up the pitcher’s spot. Yeah, let’s have Chris Woodward and Craig Wilson try to drive in runs, instead of McCann and Francoeur. (Maybe the game was secretly being simulcast on The CW, and it was part of a promotional stunt.)

    Then again, the thinking probably went something like, “We’d better get that extra run, because if it stays 9-6, it’s a save situation and we have to use the closer!”

  2. I’ll be honest, I totally forgot about the Francoeur walk. Strictly based on the basic ERT chart, that was good for the Braves, but I know I’d rather have McCann and Francoeur up there than Woodward and Wilson.

    I didn’t realize that the success rate was so low, and I like the quote from Bill James from the THT article. There are a lot more outcomes than simply “out and no advancement” and “out and runners advance.” The situation you mentioned is a particularly good example, where the end result is just a plate appearance with a count disadvantage.

    I think the important thing to gain from that is that most of those additional outcomes are negative (save for possible errors), which possibly makes the bunt an even worse play than we thought.

  3. I was pretty incredulous/ticked when McCann showed bunt; it didn’t make much sense to me. That being said, it was a heckuva bunt. Is there anything this guy can’t do (besides run a 40m in under 9.3 seconds)?

    The platoons are killing us. For a while, I wasn’t sure, but now I’m fairly convinced that I could match the production of Langerhans and Wilson, and Thorman and Diaz aren’t doing much better.

    I’m intrigued about the prospect of bringing up Saltalamacchia and platooning him…anywhere. Your thoughts?

  4. I’m not sure what to think about Salty. The Braves’ public face has been that he’s a catcher and that’s it, but I think that’s more of a marketing stance in case they decide to trade him (since Salty as a catcher would have much more value).

    These are the plans for him that I’ve heard most often:

    1. Either Salty or McCann moves to first base for good
    2. Both split time at catcher and first base
    3. Salty moves to left field

    I’m not sure the Braves’ organization has the guts to try #2 (I’m not sure it’s the best one, anyway), so either #1 or #3 would appear to be likely. My hope, if he comes up this year, is that he’s not platooned. Cox doesn’t seem to work those very well, and he could certainly play every day if he’s not playing catcher.

    I think Thorman will eventually hit, at least more than any of the other four players in the current platoon, so my vote (as far as team needs go) would be for left field, if he can handle it defensively.

    More importantly, I think the Braves’ organization needs to make a decision themselves on what they’re going to do with Salty, because he’s certainly not coming up as a full-time catcher. While it may help his trade value, the longer they wait, the more learning he has to do on the job at the major-league level.

  5. I’m not 100% positive, but I believe I heard mentioned that the Braves organization doesn’t want Salty to play LF. He runs way too slow and has the range of a dying penguin. Most scouting reports I have read indicate that his speed is a liability.

    Personally, i don’t really care. LF isn’t reserved for the most defensive outfielders anyways.

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