Mar 24, 2014; Port St. Lucie, FL, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Peter Bourjos (8) lays down a bunt against the New York Mets in spring training action at Tradition Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Lies our coaches told us: Part 3

While the thought of this article bounced around in my head, I couldn’t decide whether it would be one the most popular articles I’ve ever written, or if it would result in a mob with pitchforks descending on my house — both still seem equally likely to me. So let me say the same thing I did before part one of the Lies our coaches told us series — none of this is meant to insult you, belittle you, or otherwise cause you any consternation. The one and only point of this article, and this series as a whole, is to help give you a better understanding of this beautifully stupid (newest McCarver-ism) game.

Lie #3 – bunting is a good strategy, at least some of the time

The truth of the matter is this — bunting is a statistically solid strategy for maximizing run potential in exactly .23% of all possible scenarios. Of the 432 possible combinations of bunting scenarios between the 2 leagues (number and placement of baserunners, number of outs, inning, and lineup spot taking the AB) only one — 1 — results in a higher probability of maximizing run scoring potential than simply swinging normally. That scenario is if a team is playing in a NL stadium, with their pitcher batting, with runners on 1st and 2nd, and no outs. Even in the scenario, bunting is only a solid strategy if the attempt is successful — and only 79% of such bunt attempts are able to beat the break-even — with success defined as the advancement of both runners at least one base, and the recording of no more than one out.

As an example, consider a scenario we’ve seen multiple times in just the last week — the leadoff hitter hits a double, and the second place hitter comes to bat. If the hitter attempts to move the runner by swinging the bat normally, his team can reasonably be expected to score 1.18 runs that inning. Given that nobody can actually score .18 runs, we’ll simply say that this gives the team an 18% better run scoring potential (if we consider 1 run to be break-even, which it effectively is in an abstract sense). If the hitter elects to bunt instead, even if he his successful, his team can reasonably be expected to score .993 runs that inning. Again, this exact number is impossible, so we’ll simply say that his team now has a .07% worse run scoring potential.

To allow this to make more sense, and because both approaches will result in exactly one run the vast majority of the time, we’ll simply say that bunting in such a scenario decreases a team’s run scoring potential by 16%. In the grand scheme of things, 16% may not seem like a lot, especially given that the lack of partial runs means that in 5 out 6 of these scenarios, both strategies are likely to yield the same number of runs, which is exactly one. But don’t let 16% spread out over such a small sample size fool you — it would be a terrible mistake to do so.

Take, for example, the 2013 Texas Rangers, who scored 730 runs. If they had reduced their overall run scoring potential by 16% for the entire season, they would have scored 613 runs, which would have been only 3 more than the Houston Astros — and one run less than the Minnesota Twins. Again, 16% of run scoring potential is the only thing separating the effectiveness of the lineups of the Rangers and the Astros. 16% matters — a lot.

So, at least in the sense that it almost always significantly lowers the effectiveness of an offense, bunting is a bad idea. Period. However, there are times when a team may wish not to maximize their run scoring potential, but rather to simply increase their potential to score exactly one run — and the numbers on such  scenarios are a little better for bunting enthusiasts.

In the same scenario we mentioned before, after a leadoff double, the offensive team has a 66% chance of scoring one run — and if they successfully bunt the runner to 3rd base, they have a 70% chance of scoring one run. If you’re confused, don’t be. It’s a simple delineation between maximizing the number of runs a team can score, and their chances of scoring one run exactly, without a chance of scoring more than one run taken into consideration. This is due to a number of intricacies inherent in sports of chance like baseball — basically, giving up an out does increase your chance to score one run, but at the same time, it also decreases the maximum number of runs you can statistically be expected to score.

If you think about it for even a second, it makes perfect sense. Obviously, a runner on 3rd is more likely to score than a runner on 2nd (if both reach their respective bases with less than 2 outs, especially)– and just as obvious is that giving away 1 of only 3 outs for the inning decreases the number of potential hitters by at least one, thus decreasing the number of RBI opportunities, and by extension, decreasing the number of potential runs. So, the discussion now turns to an argument of probability of scoring one run the at the sacrifice of the opportunity to score more than one run.

While those of you who support the idea of bunting may find some solace or even victory in the last couple paragraphs, I’ve got some bad news for you — you need to look again. Due to the fact that bunting only increases an offense’s chance of scoring one run exactly, and given the fact that most teams need to score more than one run in most games in order to win, the only scenarios where such bunting knowledge and practice should reasonably be used is in the bottom of an inning numbered 9 or later, in which the game is tied. In all other scenarios, the goal should be to maximize overall run scoring potential. This means that at most, another 8 of the remaining 431 possible bunting scenarios can be added to the “good idea” list of bunting.

So, even if I’m really nice (and probably too nice, considering I’m assuming every game is always tied in the bottom of the 9th inning), the highest percentage I can give for bunting being a good idea is 2.1%. At best, 1 out of every 50 possible bunting scenarios is one in which bunting can be described as even equally as good an idea as not bunting, and only at that if we assume the bunt is successful. The bottom line is this — bunting is bad idea. Always as been. Always will be.

I wish I could say more, but the numbers speak for themselves — bunting is effecively always a really, really bad idea. In the next installment of Lies our coaches told us, we’ll examine the common appeal a catcher makes to either 1st or 3rd base umpires on check swings, and why you probably don’t know as much as you think you do about such scenarios. See you then.

 

 

 

 

 

Tags: St Louis Cardinals

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