You may have noticed that yesterday’s post was just my fifth of the year. While that probably does reflect the relative weight of baseball compared to other priorities in my life, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about baseball at least a few hours a day. Here’s an update on just a few of my baseball-related pursuits over the past few months.
Over at High Heat Stats, I’ve been cataloguing every bunt by a National League player this season and studying the use and effectiveness of the strategy. Here’s my most recent post there. I also had a piece on bunting published in the USA Today Sports Weekly this week, but since that paper is only available in print, I’ll post my unedited version at the end of this entry, rather than linking.
I’ve been writing about the Red Sox for the Forecaster, a southern Maine newspaper, again this year. Here’s my season preview and another one in which I opine that the Red Sox will start winning again when Shane Victorino returns. They’re 0-1 so far with Shane, but I still believe he’s the spark they need.
While we’re on the Red Sox, Cards Onclave asked fans of various teams to contribute to a feature called Playing Pepper. I joined seven Red Sox bloggers in chatting about Boston’s 2014 outlook.
I’ve also been enlisted by a group of bright and ambitious baseball minds to help create the GWN Hall of Fame, an alternate Hall of about 300 players, in which players are voted into the Inner, Middle, or Outer Circle. Starting with hypothetical 1936 elections and simulating the BBWAAA/Veterans Committee process, we’ve voted through 1981 and inducted 42 players to the Inner Circle, 66 to the Middle Circle, and 86 to the Outer Circle. I hope to share more about this process and the participants in this space in the future.
Between GWN, the High Heat Stats Circle of Greats, and the Hall of Stats’ Hall of Consensus, I probably spend more of my time pondering and arguing about Hall of Fame cases than I do caring about baseball in 2014.
Here’s the USA Today Sports Weekly piece in its original form:
On Sunday, April 13, Atlanta’s BJ Upton came to the plate in the bottom of the first against Washington’s Gio Gonzalez. Jason Heyward had led off the inning with a walk, resulting in a typical sacrifice bunt situation. Upton laid down a good one, and when Gonzalez threw the ball away, Heyward and Upton found themselves on second and third with no outs. Heyward scored on Freddie Freeman’s sacrifice fly, and Upton came around on his brother Justin’s home run. The Braves were well on their way to a 10-2 win and sole possession of first place, thanks in no small part to a quality bunt.
The sacrifice bunt is much maligned among more progressive baseball analysts, and it’s not hard to see why. Almost every “successful” sacrifice, which advances a runner one base in exchange for an out, yields a negative Win Probability Added (WPA). In other words, teams willing to give up an out for a base are less likely to score enough runs to win a game than teams who would prefer to swing away in such situations. What this assessment misses, though, is that not every bunt results in an out.
So far in 2014, National League teams have dropped 196 bunts. 149 of these came in traditional sacrifice situations, with fewer than two outs and runners on first, second, or both. Just 82 of those bunts (55%) were scored as sacrifices, while 19 (13%) put the batter on base, whether via hit, error, or an ill-fated fielder’s choice. On the other end, five bunts have resulted in double plays, while another 43 failed to move the runner.
All outcomes considered, these bunts have yielded an average WPA of -1.3%.
Of the other 47 bunts, in which the batter’s intention was clearly to reach base, win probability has increased by 0.57%, as the league has batted .447 on these attempts.
All told, the average bunt has produced a negative result, but the average bunt is not attempted by the average hitter. Pitchers, of course, are more likely to bunt than position players, having accounted for 85 bunts in 2014 and averaged -2.6% WPA. When position players bunt, though, they yield positive results, increasing WPA by 0.44% over a 111-bunt sample. The average non-pitcher plate appearance in the NL this year has yielded 0.08% WPA, meaning bunting, irrespective of intent, has been marginally more successful than swinging away when a non-pitcher is at the plate. And many of the National League’s frequent bunters are light-hitting, fast running players like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, who do less damage swinging the bat, but can wreak havoc on defenses once the ball is in play.
Setting Win Probability Added aside, National League teams have bunted 71 times in tie games so far in 2014. 38 times (54%), the bunting team went on to win the game. That in itself does not justify the sacrifice bunt, but early returns suggest that light hitting players are giving their teams at least as good a chance to win when they test the opposing defense with a bunt as when they swing away.
BJ Upton is batting under .200 again this year, and his -0.54% WPA tells us that the Braves have not benefitted from his offensive services. Maybe he should drop a few more bunts.