Your favorite baseball team trails 3-2, at home, late in the game.
The leadoff hitter smacks a single back up the middle, bringing up the two-hole hitter with no one out.
What should a coach do? Should he be aggressive and let the hitter swing away, or should he call for the sacrifice bunt, likely giving up an out but putting the game-tying run in scoring position?
What’s the right answer? There might not be one.
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The more than century-old practice of sacrifice bunting has seen less use professionally in recent years. Its primary opponents have been advocates of advanced statistics — otherwise known as sabermetricians — and their loyal followers, who consider outs a precious commodity and are loath to sacrifice any of them.
Their reasoning is supported by evidence.
Last season, according to data released by Baseball Prospectus — a sabermetric analysis organization — in the two most common situations for a sacrifice bunt at the major-league level, the expectation for scoring a run was greater if a hitter was allowed to swing away as opposed to giving up an out with a bunt.
With a runner on first and no out, a team scored an average 0.82 runs, the data found. With a runner on second and one out, as there would be after a sacrifice bunt, teams’ average runs scored dropped to 0.62.
Similar results were found with runners on first and second and no outs (1.4 runs scored) versus runners or second and third with one out (1.27 runs scored).
Studies just like this one have been conducted across the baseball landscape and have yielded the same conclusion: Sacrifice bunting, mathematically, simply isn’t prudent.
However, students of baseball’s old school defend the dying practice by saying numbers only tell half-truths and that there are many mitigating circumstances within a game they cannot account for.
Perhaps a dominant pitcher has been mowing through a lineup and a manufactured run is all a team can hope to scrape together.
Maybe a batter is struggling to make contact at the plate and needs the confidence-booster a sacrifice can provide.
Heck, if a powerful wind is blowing in that day, it might create an environment less conducive for gap-to-gap hitting.
The best reason, though, the practice’s staunchest defenders say, is it applies pressure to a defense.
“I love bunting. I love it,” said first-year Greenfield-Central coach Robbie Miller, a self-professed disciple of the small-ball philosophy. “Anytime you can put a ball on the ground in a high school game, good things can happen offensively.
“I don’t really look at it as giving up outs. I see it as moving a runner up at least 90 feet and giving our team a better chance to score.”
The high school aspect of Miller’s comment is a key, agreed Eastern Hancock and New Palestine coaches Chad Coughenour and Shawn Lyons.
Both suggested sabermetrics offer fine analysis of professionals athletes playing 162 games a year, but much of what has been discovered about the upper-echelon of the game cannot be applied to its lower levels.
“The execution defensively in the major leagues is so much better than at our level, ” said Coughenour, who is in his 10th year at the helm of the Royals. “Defenses down here make many more mistakes when they are put in tough situations.”
Lyons concurred. He said the sacrifice bunting is a valuable weapon that always will remain in his teams’ arsenal, and it is something his players work on “religiously.”
That leaves Mt. Vernon’s Ryan Carr as Hancock County’s only holdout. The first-year coach and sabermetric junkie said he understands the major-league numbers don’t precisely apply to high school baseball but believes the conclusions they reach are sound.
Additionally, the defenses his Marauders have faced this season have been well above par, he said, so playing for them to commit an error is folly.
“I despise bunting,” Carr said. “Then again, I’m 4-6 right now and still at the very early stages of figuring all this stuff out … but I almost always want to let my kids swing and play for the big inning.”
Carr conceded there are certain situations where he would consider sacrificing.
That was one thing he and the rest of the county coaches could agree on: In baseball, there are no absolutes.
Every situation has to be analyzed on its own, depending on dozens of variables. That said, each coach certainly has a distinct style of game they like to play. With that in mind, let’s see what the coaches said they would do in the situation mentioned at the top of this article.
Remember, their team trails 3-2, at home, late in the game. Their leadoff hitter hit a single back up the middle, bringing up the two-hole hitter with no one out.
Miller: “It doesn’t matter who comes up. It doesn’t have to be the leadoff hitter or the No. 2 guy; I’m going to bunt the ball and put pressure on the defense.”
Carr: “I like hitting. I would prefer to let him hit. I don’t like giving up outs, and I’m confident enough that we can get hits or get that guy to second base somehow.”
Lyons: “It really depends on who that No. 2 hitter is. If he is a hitter that we have a lot of confidence in, we’re going to let him hit away. But I’ve had No. 3 and No. 4 hitters in the past lay down a bunt in that situation. We’re not afraid to bunt at any time on any play anywhere with anyone at bat. … Right now, with the guy we have hitting in that spot, I’m probably not going to bunt.”
Coughenour: “Usually, what I do in that situation is give my hitter the first pitch to sort of feel out the at-bat. … That first pitch will dictate what we do. If it’s a strike, I’ll call for him to sacrifice the runner over. If it’s a ball, and maybe it gets to 2-0, then we might bunt and run … and see if we can get the runner over to third.”
Mt. Vernon manager Ryan Carr: “I despite bunting. I really do. … I don’t like giving up outs.”
Greenfield-Central manager Robbie Miller: “I love bunting. I’ll bunt anyone in my order, one through nine.”
These are the outcomes for 2014, showing the average number of runs teams scored in the following situations.
First and second;0;1.4
Second and third;1;1.27
Source: Baseball Prospectus data