Sports

By The Numbers: To Bunt Or Not To Bunt

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

By Father Gabe Costa

There is no time in baseball; a baseball game is measured by outs. To win a game, a team has to face and retire 27 batters before it can claim a nine-inning victory. While these outs can be obtained via double-plays, failed stolen base attempts and other ways, the fact remains that three outs must be recorded every time a team comes to bat.

It would seem that to purposely give up an out makes no sense whatsoever. On this point, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver is said to have remarked, “A team gets only twenty-seven outs…why would I want to give any away?”

Hence, we ask the question: “Is the bunt viable?”

Mathematically, this can open up a can of worms. Such technical concepts as Markov Chains and empirical probabilities can be brought into the discussion. Furthermore, for more than a century of professional baseball, the question of whether a base is worth an out has been argued from both sides.

In this episode of By The Numbers, I would like to initiate a brief discussion on this question by appealing to some previous research on this matter.

To set the stage, as we all know, there are 24 Bases-Outs scenarios. This is because a team can bat with 0, 1 or 2 outs. And, since there are eight ways runners can be on base, ranging from bases empty on through bases loaded, we have two dozen possibilities (3 X 8 = 24).

Our next task is to gather data to assist us in making a determination regarding our question. There is so much information on the Internet, that, at times, it’s hard to zoom in on precisely what is needed. For our purposes, I’ve taken the table (and the associated explanation) below from the following link.

The following table presents the average number of runs that scored, from that base/out state, to the end of that inning. All data is from 1999-2002.

Note: All partial innings are excluded. All home innings in the 9th or later are excluded.

RE 99-02 0 1 2
Empty 0.555 0.297 0.117
1st 0.953 0.573 0.251
2nd 1.189 0.725 0.344
3rd 1.482 0.983 0.387
1st_2nd 1.573 0.971 0.466
1st_3rd 1.904 1.243 0.538
2nd_3rd 2.052 1.467 0.634
Loaded 2.417 1.65 0.815

The reader is asked to focus on “the average number of runs” facet of this table. These numbers, which are in the body of the chart, can be thought of as the “expected number of runs” and were obtained over the “long run” during the four years (1999 – 2002) referenced.  For instance, teams which batted with the bases loaded and zero outs, scored about 2.417 runs “on the average” in those innings.

The following observation is essential; based on this matrix, in none of these situations was a base worth more than or even as much as an out! For example, a man on first base with no outs gave a team an expected value of .953 runs. Contrast this with a man on second base with one out, and the corresponding expected value of .725 runs.

It must be said that one has to be careful not to read too much into this table. By the very nature of the “bunting” question, many related questions arise. A few of these are:

  • What if a team needs just one run, as in the case of batting in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game?
  • How proficient is the batter at bunting and will he have a difficult time laying down a bunt against the particular pitcher he is opposing?
  • Do the runners on base possess sufficient speed?

Personally and from my perspective, I never liked the bunt and can think of very few times when I would use the bunt, if I was a Manager. About the only time I could foresee calling for a bunt is if I had a very fast (and smart!) runner on third base and an excellent bunter at bat. In this case I might employ the safety squeeze. Nothing bothers me more than seeing a potentially big inning thwarted by a botched bunt, often resulting in a double play!

On the other hand, if I’m managing the team on the field, I would take any and all free outs given to my team. You want to bunt? Be my guest! (I still have nightmares about the ninth inning of the seventh game of the 2001 World Series!)

If the reader wishes to read more on this topic, please access the following references, which I’ve chosen more or less at random:

http://nysportsdog.blogspot.com/2010/05/why-you-dont-bunt-with-man-on-second.html

http://baseballanalysts.com/archives/2006/07/empirical_analy_1.php

http://www.baseballprospectus.com/statistics/expected_runs_matrix2005.premium.php

http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/not-so-sweet-surrender/

What do you think? How would you manage?

Next Blog: Is the Stolen Base Worth It? One Fan’s Opinion…