Do the Phillies Need to Bunt?

Tip of the cap to reader LTG, who brought this to my attention. Manager Charlie Manuel told reporters he wants to see his team bunt more often in 2012.

“I was talking [to our coaches] today,” Manuel said Monday. “We’re going to do more bunting sessions. We’re going to get [Shane Victorino] and Jimmy [Rollins] and [Juan] Pierre and [Michael] Martinez. … If Victorino bunted 15-20 times a year and got both of the corners up, the balls he slices and hits hard, there are more ground balls that go through the infield.”

Bunting isn’t correlated with higher run scoring. Using team data from 2007-11, a team’s total bunt hits had a negative correlation (-0.1) with runs scored, meaning that the more bunt hits a team had, the less runs they scored. In fact, bunt hits correlated negatively with almost every offensive statistic, for obvious reasons. The lone positive correlation was with BABIP (0.16), but bunt hits only explained 2.5 percent of BABIP and considering the selection bias (players that tend to bunt also tend to be faster and to hit more ground balls), it isn’t meaningful in the least.

Additionally, there aren’t many situations in which a bunt is more favorable than swinging away. Using 2011 data in the Run Expectancy Matrix from Baseball Prospectus, let’s examine the effect of a sacrifice bunt, without accounting for the skill of the hitter:

  • Runner on first, 0 out -> Runner on second, 1 out
  • 0.85 runs -> 0.65 runs (-0.20)
  • Runner on second, 0 out -> Runner on third, 1 out
    • 1.06 runs -> 0.90 runs (-0.16)
  • Runners on first and second, 0 out -> Runners on second and third, 1 out
    • 1.43 runs -> 1.29 runs (-0.14)
  • Runners on first and second, 0 out -> Runners on first and third, 1 out
    • 1.43 runs -> 1.14 runs (-0.29)
  • Runners on first and third, 0 out -> Runners on second and third, 1 out
    • 1.68 runs -> 1.29 runs (-0.39)
  • Runner on first, 1 out -> Runner on second, 2 out
    • 0.50 runs -> 0.31 runs (-0.19)
  • Runner on second, 1 out -> Runner on third, 2 out
    • 0.65 runs -> 0.34 runs (-0.31)
  • Runners on first and second, 1 out -> Runners on second and third, 2 out
    • 0.89 runs -> 0.57 runs (-0.32)
  • Runners on first and second, 1 out -> Runners on first and third, 2 out
    • 0.89 runs -> 0.48 runs (-0.41)
  • Runners on first and third, 1 out -> Runners on second and third, 2 out
    • 1.14 runs -> 0.57 runs (-0.57)

    In each situation, the run expectancy goes down after a bunt. Obviously, there are some situations where a bunt does make sense, such as when you have a pitcher or an otherwise weak hitter at the plate (i.e. Michael Martinez). But for the most part, you want to swing away instead of bunt.

    Specifically, Manuel said that Victorino would be able to squeak out a few extra hits if he bunts more and pressures the defense into playing him honest (e.g. not deep, expecting him to swing away every time). However, looking at Victorino’s spray charts from 2011 (courtesy ESPN Stats & Info), it doesn’t look like such a practice would have given him many more hits, if any.

    Victorino against LHP

    Victorino against RHP

    In situations with a runner on first base and less than two outs, Victorino’s propensity (or lackthereof) to bunt will be less of an issue when he is batting left-handed, since the first baseman will most likely be playing on the bag anyway. By bunting an extra 15-20 times, the Phillies assure themselves of proportionally fewer extra-base hits (13 percent of Victorino’s 456 batted balls went for extra bases last year). If Victorino loses 3 extra-base hits (all doubles, for argument’s sake) by attempting to bunt 20 times, he would need roughly five extra singles (whether by successfully reaching base on a bunt, or by causing the defense to play shallower in future at-bats) to make up for it.

    Adding bunting to the Phillies’ offensive repertoire is like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Not that the Phillies’ offense is sinking — they had the best offense in the National League once Chase Utley returned to the lineup on May 23 (3.8 runs per game before; 4.6 runs per game after) last year. If the Phillies are interested in scoring more runs, they should make more meaningful changes, such as platooning Domonic Brown and John Mayberry in left field — or giving Brown the job outright — or assuring Utley’s freshness in August and September by giving him scheduled rest throughout the season.