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.

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    48 comments

    1. Ryne Duren

      February 29, 2012 11:07 AM

      i understand all those stats you presented. however you didn’t seem to factor that bunting for actual hits opposed to sac bunts. i mean if you lead off an inning against a pitcher who’s in a groove, one of the ways you get him out of his cvomfort zone is to put runners on! is he going to be as effective in the stretch with a speedy runner on? Even when lights out lidge was in a groove in 08, he was a much different pitcher with a runner on! and that go’s for a lot of pitchers. so i think sometimes stats don’t reveal the whole story on certain aspects of the game. bunting for hits is a weapon. as opposed to just sacrificing.

    2. Scott G

      February 29, 2012 11:07 AM

      Let’s tell them to bunt more and preach that walks shouldn’t be desired. Seems like a great idea to me.

    3. Bill Baer

      February 29, 2012 11:10 AM

      @ Ryne

      Bunting for hits — as opposed to sacrifice bunting — is also a skill that is acquired and conditioned. Asking a player like Rollins or Victorino, who have rarely bunted for hits over the course of their respective careers, to successfully bunt for hits on such short notice is a fool’s errand. If it was that easy, more players would do it.

    4. Ryne Duren

      February 29, 2012 11:20 AM

      well Bill i disagree on that because at this stage of their careers it should have been in their arsenal all along! it’s not something they don’t know how to do! i hear excuses for major league players in so many sports, not just baseball that you can’t ask them to do this or that cause they haven’t done it in the past. my god they probably have played since t-ball, little league etc. you can’t expect to believe they don’t know how. they know they just want more glory hitting hr’s or gappers, etc. that stuff looks so much better on the highlites they watch after the game to boost their egos. all due respect Bill but at their age and experience there’s no such thing as short notice. By the way you got a great sight hear i’m an avid reader. you do a good job! go phils!!!!!!!!!!!!

    5. JC

      February 29, 2012 11:26 AM

      Ryne,
      Go check out The Book. If I’m not mistaken (and I could be, it’s been a while since I read it) they did lots of number crunching on sacrifice bunts vs. bunts for hits. Even, if I am mistaken, it’s a good read anyway.

    6. Dan K.

      February 29, 2012 11:28 AM

      @Bill,

      But isn’t that the point of practicing it now? Not so that they’re guaranteed to be able to get bunt base hits, but to increase the likelihood that they can? There are merits to bunting that don’t show up in stats (this is me speaking as a baseball pitcher). A pitcher that is on his game (especially one carrying a no-no or perfect game) is more acutely aware of a batter that is squaring than one just standing in the box. It does get in a pitcher’s head, and sometimes it will cause a mistake or the pitcher to be more cautious. I’m not sold on this being a good idea for the Phils, but this definitely isn’t a black-and-white issue (not to insinuate that you are saying it is).

      I have things to ponder about this subject.

    7. Dan K.

      February 29, 2012 11:32 AM

      Also, Ryan Howard, when he comes back, should be one of the people bunting. Lay some bunts down the 3B line and see how fast they stop using the shift.

      I’m mostly (about 99%) joking about this, just to be clear.

    8. LTG

      February 29, 2012 11:33 AM

      Thanks, BB!

    9. LTG

      February 29, 2012 11:37 AM

      Howard bunting could be an interesting game of stupid-chicken. Bunting with Howard (even with no one one or only when he leads off) will drive run scoring down over the long haul. But if teams adjust their defense as a result it will drive run scoring up. So you have to be stupid or bank on the stupidity of the opponent in order to get the game started but, in the current baseball climate, who knows?

    10. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 11:39 AM

      @Ryan,

      This is MAJOR league baseball. Knowing the mechanics of how to do something vs actually doing it effectively enough to make it work against major league talent is another thing. Tiger can still kick your ass in golf even in his “old age,” but he’s not exactly cutting it against superior competition, and nobody can accuse him of not knowing how to play golf.

      At the end of the day, repetition is STILL the best way to improve one’s craft. To believe that one spring training worth of “increased” focus is enough for Rollins or Vic to learn how to bunt SO well as to beat major league competition consistently (around a .500 BA according to Bill’s numbers, due to loss of extra base hits), to use Bill’s Titanic analogy, is kinda like believing it won’t sink if you threw some deck chairs overboard.

    11. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 11:43 AM

      Dan K.,

      I don’t think it’s much of a joke to ask Howard to bunt when the shift is on. Why not? Without ANYONE at third base, a bunt down that line has a drastically increased chance of becoming a hit, to the point where a .500 BA is not out of the question (which means I disagree with you, LTG, that it’ll decrease run scoring even in the long haul). Hey, if Tex can consider it, so can Howard.

    12. JC

      February 29, 2012 11:47 AM

      Even if Howard started to bunt, I don’t think teams would just abandon the shift on him. They’d probably just take the bunt single and move on.

    13. Dan K.

      February 29, 2012 11:49 AM

      @697,

      I still, begrudgingly, give Tex a lot of respect for saying he is considering it. The problem with bunting down the 3B line, even if no one is at third, is that 1) you have to be able to control the direction of your bunt (not difficult for someone who bunts often, but may prove a challenge for someone like Howard), 2) you need to be proficient enough that you can be sure it won’t go foul, and 3) it has to be a hard enough bunt that it gets past the pitcher.

      I’m not saying Howard can’t become proficient enough at bunting to fulfill those three prerequisites, but I think it would be very difficult at this point in his career. But hey, no harm in trying in games that don’t matter. If he picks it up fast enough to help this year or next, great. If not, oh well. No harm done in ST and/or rehab.

    14. andy

      February 29, 2012 11:49 AM

      Hi Bill, are you attending the Sports Analytics Conference this weekend in Boston?

    15. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 11:59 AM

      JC,

      Then I’ll take the free base :) Sooner or later they’ll realize they’re giving up runs by being stubborn. What you are proposing is akin to just intentionally walking him, which we already know is a bad idea according to the numbers.

    16. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 12:04 PM

      @Dan K,

      Agreed with everything you said, but remember, he doesn’t have to succeed EVERY time to make it worthwhile. Just one out of two times would be worth it.

    17. Scott G

      February 29, 2012 12:08 PM

      Using Lidge as an example of a pitcher who is worse with runners on base isn’t exactly fair. Someone must have taught him that he doesn’t need to hold runners on.

      Bunting for hits is difficult, and we don’t really have players who are good at it. Jimmy and Shane aren’t the best probably because they don’t practice it. Juan Pierre is probably a pretty good bunter, but hopefully he doesn’t see the playing field for the Philadelphia Phillies

    18. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 12:11 PM

      @Scott G,

      Well, Juan Pierre is still > Ty Wigginton. I rather see Pierre + Mayberry on the field than Mayberry + Wigginton.

    19. JC

      February 29, 2012 01:20 PM

      Phillie697,
      I’d also take the free base! But I think the other team would probably weigh what removing the shift would do for overall for their general defense vs Howard. Intentional walks means he WILL get on base…for someone who doesn’t bunt much (and probably won’t often) it’s not a guarantee. I doubt defenses will care too much. Also maybe it leads to a new kind of shift..

    20. Scott G

      February 29, 2012 01:40 PM

      Let’s not forgot that while you’re claiming these are ML hitters and should be able to bunt, the defenders are elite as well. This isn’t Little League. They make plays routinely.

      Phillie,

      Really? I’d rather have Wigginton who has a higher OPS, and Mayberry who can play good defense in the outfield than Pierre who can’t hit or throw.

    21. Rob SJ

      February 29, 2012 01:58 PM

      If you think that Howard can bunt effectively enough to reach base on a regular basis, then ok, but I’m doubtful he would be that skilled considering a player like him has probably virtually never bunted in his baseball career. Howard bunting to 3B to change positioning seems nonsensical to me. The real problem with the shift is the 2B playing in short rightfield, facilitated by the SS shading way around to the rigthfield side of the 2B bag. Even if the fear of Howard bunting leads the defense to move the 3B closer to the 3B bag, why would they have to move the SS or 2B? It probably only takes the 3B moving a few steps to his right to neutralize the threat of the bunt – no need to move completely back to standard positioning. What am I missing?

    22. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 02:32 PM

      @Scott G,

      Ty Wigginton’s defense = garbage. In fact, correction, garbage would be worth more.

      @Rob SJ,

      If you think it only takes moving the 3B a few steps to his right from the “shift” that Howard sees on a regular basis, you must think that a shortstop, from his regular position, can effectively field a bunt. Maybe if you’re Derek Jeter and you’re throwing/flipping to home plate. Otherwise, yeah… No.

      @JC,

      A new shift is definitely possible. But until then, no harm in bunting :)

    23. LTG

      February 29, 2012 02:33 PM

      Yeah, I don’t expect Howard could bunt for a .500 BA.

    24. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 02:38 PM

      @LTG,

      I give Howard at least a little credit, considering he would only be trying to bunt into empty space, LOL.

    25. Rob SJ

      February 29, 2012 02:39 PM

      Phillie697 – the argument for having him bunt to third is that it doesn’t have to be perfect – the left side is so wide open that he just needs to get it in the area and past the pitcher. If the 3B moves a few steps closer to the bag, now he needs to get the bunt closer the line, while still keeping it fair and past the pitcher, since he doesn’t exactly have the speed to leg out many close plays. I think that that sort of slight adjustment would be enough to decrease the odds of him reaching base sufficiently that it no longer makes sense.

    26. Rob SJ

      February 29, 2012 02:40 PM

      And let me say, I really love the condescending tone of your “yeah…no”. Really great.

    27. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 02:41 PM

      @Rob SJ,

      So what you are really proposing is not really a real bunt, but a “directed pushing” of the pitch, like swinging with two hands almost. I still would like to think Howard can learn how to truly bunt.

    28. Rob SJ

      February 29, 2012 02:50 PM

      No, I’m proposing Howard bunting hard enough to get it past the pitcher. If the pitcher fields it, Howard will be thrown out. If the defense can restrict the area in which that bunt will be successful, then it becomes too low of a percentage play to make sense. And I believe they can easily do this without going back to a standard defensive position around the diamond.

    29. Phillie697

      February 29, 2012 03:47 PM

      1. Ryan Howard is actually not that slow; I don’t think he has only a tiny area where he can bunt to to be successful. A ball bunt halfway up the third baseline will be good enough IMO. Most of the bunts, perfect or not, WILL be fielded by the pitcher; you make “past the pitcher” sound like it has to be that way. In normal bunting situations, “past the pitcher” means it will be more effective for the 3B to field the bunt. In this situation, there is no such thing, so “past the pitcher” has a whole different meaning, and I don’t think Howard has to do all that to be successful.

      2. I agree they don’t have to go back to a standard defensive position, but it remains to be seen what this new “shift” would be, and whether there is another way to counteract that as well. But for now, there is no reason not to take advantage.

    30. Tom

      February 29, 2012 03:58 PM

      I think asking Howard to:
      A) Rehab as best as possible

      2) Stop swinging at crap way off the plate

      D) Learn how to throw a baseball

      would be a tall enough order without making the 240lb juggernaut coming off an Achilles injury leg out bunts. Even when he is healthy just accomplishing the last two things would be wonderful.

    31. Scott G

      February 29, 2012 05:38 PM

      Phillie,

      Really? We usually have Howard there. It’s not that tough. The guy plays utility infield. I’m pretty sure he can handle 1B

    32. John

      February 29, 2012 10:11 PM

      Earlier in the offseason I looked at Charlie’s decisions to bunt in 2011. Curiously enough, I found that Victorino’s 6 bunts last season resulted in a net gain of nearly 6 runs (relative to expected runs). Though it’s probably just a SSS fluke, I still thought that was pretty interesting given how angry I got each and every time Charlie let him bunt.

      thatballsouttahere.com/2012/01/04/a-look-at-charlie-manuels-decisions-to-bunt-in-2011/

    33. jonny

      March 01, 2012 08:35 AM

      John, that’s very interesting and hard to use as proof due to the SSS as you mentioned but interesting indeed. I’m sure with Victo’s speed that helped and he’s probably pretty darned good at it. With his wheels I’m sure he’s had to do it more than the average player before he hit the Major leagues. Well if they played the Tigers and the BoSox all the time it would be like taking candy from a baby… I’d say Charlie may have been quite selective with when Vic bunted and only did it when facing a team with a defensively challenged 3rd baseman.

    34. hk

      March 01, 2012 10:27 AM

      John,

      Thanks for the link to the article. Although the actual results following the SSS of Shane’s 6 bunts is bizarre, the bigger issue from the article for me – and one on which I disagree with the author – is the negative impact of the strategy. In his claim that Charlie’s decisions to bunt only cost the Phillies 0.5 expected runs last year, he implies that these results were nearly irrelevant over the course of 162 games. However, instead of looking at the 0.5 expected runs lost in the context of the entire season, he should have looked at them in the context of the 26 innings in which Charlie employed the strategy of sacrifice bunting with non-pitchers. The strategy cost the Phillies 0.5 expected runs in slightly less than 3 games, which actually equates to approximately 27 expected runs lost throughout a season.

    35. Phillie697

      March 01, 2012 10:47 AM

      @hk,

      Disagree. The decision of when and how much to bunt should be taken into consideration. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of Charlie either, but I can’t agree with you that he’s liable to cost us 27 runs in the course of a season because of his bunting decisions.

    36. LTG

      March 01, 2012 10:56 AM

      Yeah, hk, the projection can’t be made from only those innings in which Charlie decided to bunt. He’s not going to bunt in every inning. In fact, he won’t even get close to bunting in every inning. The projection has to be based on the presupposition that he has a choice to bunt in each at-bat but only does so in a certain portion of them. Of course, we should be looking at the expected value and not the actual to evaluate the decision-making. That Charlie got lucky when Vic bunted is not to his credit.

    37. hk

      March 01, 2012 11:34 AM

      I am not saying that Charlie will cost us 27 runs in a season because I obviously know that he won’t / won’t be in a position to have a non-pitcher attempt a sacrifice bunt in every inning. I get that he only employed the strategy 26 times, which is less than once per every six games. My point is that a strategy that cost the team 0.5 runs in 26 innings is a strategy that should be used less, not more, in the future.

    38. hk

      March 01, 2012 11:39 AM

      One other point about this article and the strategy of having a non-pitcher attempt a sacrifice bunt is that the article ignored the times that Phils tried to employ the strategy but the bunt either resulted in a base hit or an out on which the runners failed to advance.

    39. Phillie697

      March 01, 2012 02:48 PM

      @BB,

      In your situational “chart” above, you didn’t list situations where suicide squeezes were employed, i.e. bunting to get a man home. If successful, isn’t the run expectancy in those cases ALWAYS higher than before the squeeze due to the guaranteed run that scored? For example, first and third with 1 out -> second with 2 outs and run scored would be going from 1.14 runs expected to 1.31 runs expected.

      Does this mean teams should attempt suicide squeezes more? LOL.

    40. Dan K.

      March 01, 2012 03:42 PM

      I think I speak for everyone when I say that, no matter how this bunting thing works out, at least we didn’t trade for Burnett.

    41. hk

      March 01, 2012 04:28 PM

      @ Dan K.,

      Disregard my last comment. I just read about Burnett’s injury.

    42. Brian

      March 02, 2012 01:05 PM

      Wow, that’s a lot of data for missing the point (no offense). To me, Charlie is not talking about bunting for hits, he’s talking about changing the opposing team’s defense. It’s all about perception. He’s talking about those guys posing a threat to lay down a bunt, which brings the corners up which allows hard hit balls through the holes easier (his words, not mine). I think it’s a good idea. That way the defense doesn’t just sit back and camp in the hole just waiting for a smoked ball. If they are playing up, “protecting” against the bunt, they have less reaction time and range. Good strategy.

    43. LTG

      March 02, 2012 02:40 PM

      Brian,

      If you read the article, BB addressed the possible success of such a strategy by showing that Vic’s spray chart doesn’t indicate that a shift in defense would lead to many more hits and probably not enough to hit the break even point at which the loss of expected runs from bunting is improved by the extra hits Vic gets when not bunting. You can disagree with BB’s conclusions. (And you should use evidence, rather than abstract supposition, to support the disagreement.) But he didn’t “miss the point.”

    44. Dan K.

      March 02, 2012 03:43 PM

      Reading this again, it poses the question how many bunts it would take for the opposing defense to play the speedy guys “honest” (corners up). And then after they are established bunters and the corners play up, how long will the defense stay that way even if they stop bunting.

      What I’m getting at is this; if it takes only 10 bunts to make the other team move the corners up and they stay that way virtually every time one of the speedy players comes to bat, and this lasts for the next 600 ABs, then it’s a viable strategy, I would think. It’s possible this is either far more or less viable than Bill has indicated in the article, and I don’t think there’s any way of telling which. Seems to be a crap shoot. I would be interested to know how many ABs of “honest” defense it would take per bunt for it to be viable, if you can think of a way to determine that.

    45. Brian

      March 13, 2012 11:37 AM

      BB/LTG,
      I apologize, I didn’t mean to offend. I’m not saying your data is wrong or doesn’t support your article. I was merely stating I think the whole idea is gameplay. Even the fact that Charlie mentions it to the media in spring training is gameplay. If you were an opposing manager on opening day, would you think about the bunt? You probably would now. I will say it’s tough to use a 2011 spray chart (which I can’t see due to firewalls at work haha!) and ‘suppose’ Vic is going to hit the same place in 2012 every time. I’m sure the chart doesn’t indicate how hard a ball was hit or trajectory or anything like that. Also tough to ‘suppose’ that Vic is going to take the same approach to hitting with the corners up as with the corners playing back. As a hitter, I would definitely be mindful of where the corners are playing. Knowing I might be able to dink one over the third baseman’s head might make me change my approach. Also tough to suppose that as Vic goes, so goes the rest of the team. So, true I don’t have the hard statistical data, but I don’t think my suppositions are all that abstract. On paper maybe it doesn’t look like it will work, but as a wise man once said “That’s why they play the game”.

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