Opportunity Gained, or Opportunity Lost? When to Bunt, When to Swing Away

As you may have noticed, the Dodgers like to bunt. A lot. So much so, they lead the major leagues in sacrifice bunts with 36, the next closest team being the Philadelphia Phillies at 29. That's 24% more bunting than the next closest team. Run Expectancy, and movies like Moneyball, suggest bunting is bad in any situation. In fact, using data from 1993 through the 2010 season, there is no situation in which you can expect more runs by moving all runners up one base at the cost of one out. But, is that as deep as we should look? Let's look at the two most common scenarios in which a manager would be tempted to sacrifice bunt.


Run Expectancy says we should expect to score 0.941 runs during an inning which begins with a runner on first base and no outs. With a runner on second base and one out, teams score .721 runs on average. You've all seen it before. Lead-off guy gets on base, next hitter sacrifice bunts the runner to second, next two batters each get a chance to drive in the run from scoring position.Or, runners on first and second base, no outs, manager wants to get two runners into scoring position as easily as possible, so he bunts. Well, runners on first and second base with zero outs yields a 1.556 run return, while runners on second and third base with one out leads to 1.447 runs in that inning.

Sometimes the batters succeed, and the manager is applauded for following "the book". More often than not the hitters fail, and fans everywhere want to take the book and beat the manager to death with it. Such is the nature of a game where a 30 percent success rate is vehemently cheered.

But how much blame does Don Mattingly deserve for his tendency to sacrifice bunt? It's certainly the "safe" play, as no one in the clubhouse or front office is likely to confront him for bunting a runner into scoring position. Rather, the risk of job security comes from not bunting in that situation and not scoring any runs. Besides, it's not like we have the types of hitters in our lineup who can get themselves into scoring position simply by stepping into the batter's box. Most nights. the Dodgers are currently starting a lineup that could easily be called Andre and the Seven Dwarves. Outside of Ethier, the lineup is a lot of singles hitters and walk takers, with no real extra base threat. In fact, the Dodgers are 5th in MLB in Grounding Into Double Plays with 51. Want to avoid the double play without sacrificing the out by stealing second base outright? Unlikely. The Dodgers rank 24th in MLB in stolen base percentage. So what is a manager to do? The only possible answer is: it depends.

It depends on the situation at that moment in the game. Games are won by one run, and winning by more than one run isn't necessary. Also, as the game progresses and outs become more limited, a singular run increases in importance. One extra run could be the difference between padding a lead, cutting a lead a little bit closer, or tying the score late in the game. I've compiled two charts below that I think adequately state when a sacrifice bunt is appropriate, taking score and game scenario into account. Keep in mind, these don't even take into account who is batting, who is on deck or in the hole, the state of the opponents bullpen (is the closer pitching now, available, not available), the current dominance of the starting pitcher, or the state of your own bullpen. This can't even take into account position in the batting order because the Dodgers fourth hitter and the Yankees fourth hitter would have to be neutralized. For the purpose of these charts, I'm only taking into account score, inning and home or away team.

You'll notice I highlighted two cells Red. These are really the only situations in which being the home or away team matters. They say play for the win on the road and the tie at home because the home team gets the last opportunity in extra innings. The idea behind this chart is to show that in the first six innings, a manager should have his team play each inning for the maximum number of runs, but in the last three innings a manager should try to put his team in position to score one run and cut down a small lead, extend a small lead, or break a tie. Further, the idea is to cut down a small deficit by one run per inning late in the game, hoping to have a chance to tie or go ahead in the 9th inning or sooner.

So, while Run Expectancy suggests a team will score more runs per inning than just swinging away, we must take into account the situations in which scoring only one run, or ensuring one run, is the desired result, and that scoring more than one run, while preferable, isn't completely necessary. This come into play a lot more with runners on first and second base because the sacrifice fly becomes a more viable run-scoring play. Below are two further charts for when bunting the runners over to second and third base at the cost of one out is appropriate.

You can see how there isn't any difference between home and away in this scenario. If a team is in a close ballgame late in the game, bunting runners over with the idea of a one-out base hit scoring two runs rather than a no-out base hit scoring one run becomes more appealing. If this scenario were to occur earlier in the game, a team should try to score as many runs as possible. But, later in a game, the only real goal is to tie or lead, not try for the big inning. In the situation of second and third with zero outs, a team trailing by one run or tied is going to try to set up a sacrifice fly opportunity, while a team trailing by two or three runs will try to put as many runners into scoring position as possible. You'll also notice when trailing by three or more runs in the ninth inning, bunting would put you in position to score two runs with a base hit, but would then leave you still trailing by one, with potentially a game-ending double play possibility facing the next hitter.

It is important to remember with these scenarios that whether the manager leading by one run late in the game tries to extend the lead by one run or to take the risk of not scoring any runs by going for the big inning and trust that his bullpen can maintain a small lead is almost entirely of personal preference.

Summary: If there is anything to take away from this, it's to always consider game context, the entire context, before passing judgment on whether or not a sacrifice bunt is the right play or a wasted big inning opportunity. The score, inning, current state of each pitching staff, current position in the lineup for each team, and whether the team is home or away, even time of day, weather and playing conditions must be taken into account.

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