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How much does all this bunting cost, anyway?

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Putting exact numbers to the Indians’ tendency to give away outs

Cleveland Indians v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Writing about the Cleveland Indians is hard for me at the moment. The team is playing well, I haven’t noticed anything super weird, and there’s really nothing I want to complain about. I’m almost at a loss for words.

But never really at a loss, as my fellow Tribe fans are a great source of help and inspiration. When I put a call out on Twitter, folks came through big time. While some suggestions were better than others, it was @demosthenes_cle who really struck a chord.

This is, after all, the number one bunt site in all of the Tribe blogosphere.

Now, perhaps some of you reading this are like Bob Nightengale’s quotable old-timers and think the modern game needs a little more bunting and other such stuff. Thus, it is necessary here to explain why bunting is generally a bad idea.

In its simplest form, bunting is giving up an out. Often, it’s playing for one run rather than multiple runs, and even that is dependent on the player at bat executing the bunt perfectly. As Russel A. Carleton wrote in his excellent book, The Shift, “When you have a choice between two strategies before you know the outcome, pick the one with the highest expected value.” Win probability added is what it says it is, and offers a great insight into how the value of individual actions can affect the team’s likelihood of winning.

Additionally, we can figure out how many runs might be lost by those actions. In a single half inning, when a player is at bat there are three possible outs situations and eight configurations of runners on base, which is 24 out and runner combinations. At the end of an at bat, there are three possible outcomes — out, runners change location, or runs scored — sometimes all three happen on the same play. With these outcomes, people smarter than me created the run expectancy matrix, RE24, which tells you the average number of runs a team would be expected to score in each of those 24 runner-out combinations.

I don’t have the math skills (or, more accurately, free time to learn and do the math) to calculate win probability added or runs expected for each bunt, but FanGraphs’ game feed gives us win probability added and run expectancy. So we can get real ugly with this.

Warning: gory bunt statistics ahead.

  • April 4 (W, 4-1): Eric Stamets, 7th inning, reached on error, Tyler Naquin to third on error. WPA: .027, RE: 0.72
  • April 16 (W, 4-2): Max Moroff, 9th inning, sacrifices Jake Bauers to third, Kevin Plawecki to second. WPA: .002, RE: -0.07
  • April 24 (W, 6-2): Leonys Martin, 5th inning, sacrifices Mike Freeman to third, Francisco Lindor to second. WPA: -.001, RE: -0.11
  • April 27 (L, 3-4): Freeman, 10th inning, sacrifices Roberto Pérez to second. WPA: -.022, RE: -0.19
  • April 30 (W, 7-4): Trevor Bauer, 6th inning, sacrifices Pérez to second. WPA: -.008, RE: -0.18
  • April 30 (W, 7-4): Pérez, 8th inning, sacrifices Bauers to third. WPA: -.002, RE: -0.15
  • May 4 (W, 5-4): Martin, 8th inning, sacrifices Lindor to second. WPA: -.045, RE: -0.23
  • May 9 (W, 5-0): Naquin, 4th inning, sacrifices Bauers to third, Pérez to second. WPA: -.001, RE: -0.11
  • May 10 (L, 3-4): Martin, 7th inning, sacrifices Plawecki to third. WPA: -.027, RE: -0.18
  • May 11 (L, 2-3): Freeman, 9th inning, sacrifices Jordan Luplow to second. WPA: -.051, RE: -0.20
  • May 24 (W, 3-1): Jason Kipnis, 8th inning, sacrifices Lindor to second. WPA: -.021, RE: -0.23
  • May 27 (L, 5-12): Kipnis, 3rd inning, sacrifices Oscar Mercado to third, Carlos Santana to second. WPA: -.002, RE: -0.11
  • May 27: Greg Allen, 4th inning, sacrifices Freeman to second. WPA: -.018, RE: -0.23
  • May 31 (L, 1-6): Pérez, 2nd inning, sacrifices Allen to second. WPA: -.015, RE: -0.20
  • June 1 (W, 5-2): Allen, 7th inning, sacrifices Bauers to third. WPA: -.008, RE: -0.18
  • June 5 (W, 9-7): Mercado, 5th inning, sacrifices Lindor to third. WPA: -.028, RE: -0.20
  • June 12 (L, 2-7): Mercado, 3rd inning, sacrifices Martin to third, Lindor to second. WPA: -.007, RE: -0.11
  • June 19 (W, 10-4): Mercado, 1st inning, sacrifices Lindor to second. WPA: -.019, RE: -0.24
  • June 21 (W, 7-6): Kipnis, 6th inning, sacrifices Ramírez to second. WPA: -.031, RE: -0.23
  • June 24 (W, 3-2): Freeman, 7th inning, sacrifices Naquin to second. WPA: -.012, RE: -0.23
  • July 4 (W, 8-4): Mercado, 7th inning, safe on error, Lindor scores on error, Mercado to second. WPA: .061, RE: 1.0
  • July 7 (W, 11-1): Kipnis, 5th inning, sacrifices Allen to third, Santana to second. WPA: -.001, RE: -0.09
  • July 21 (W, 5-4): Freeman, 6th inning, sacrifices Bauers to second. WPA: -.014, RE: -0.23
  • July 22 (W, 7-3): Lindor, 6th inning, sacrifices Naquin to third. WPA: -.011, RE: -0.19
  • July 25 (W, 5-4): Freeman, 10th inning, sacrifices Santana to second. WPA: -.025, RE: -0.22
  • July 25 (W, 5-4): Pérez, 14th inning, sacrifices Kipnis to second. WPA: -.009, RE: -0.22
  • July 31 (W, 10-4): Mercado, 5th inning, sacrifice fielder’s choice, Lindor to third, Mercado to first. WPA: .091, RE: 0.72
  • August 5 (L, 0-1): Naquin, 9th inning, sacrifices Ramírez to third. WPA: -.036, RE: -0.20
  • August 12 (W, 6-5): Pérez, 7th inning, sacrifices Ramírez to third. WPA: -.007, RE: -0.20
  • August 16 (L, 2-3): Pérez, 7th inning, sacrifices Naquin to second. WPA: -.042, RE: -0.21
  • August 18 (W, 8-4): Kipnis, 2nd inning, sacrifices Franmil Reyes to third, Pérez to second. WPA: -.005, RE: -0.1

There you have it. In total, the Indians have lost 0.469 WPA from bunts and 2.6 expected runs. Very nearly half a win or a quarter of a win’s worth of runs (using BRef’s estimation that 10 runs is roughly equivalent to a win), respectively.

Now, not every one of those bunts was bad, some of them yielded positive numbers. Not all of them came in losing efforts, either. At least one, Martin on May 4, moved the game-tying run along ... but that run then scored on a home run. Which is exactly the point, isn’t it? Why bunt when you could just try to hit the ball.

Going back to Carleton, he offers a little balm for anyone who still thinks the Indians are smart to bunt so often:

“There is no question that what is commonly hailed as a success (a sacrifice bunt that retires the batter, but moves the runner) is a failure in the eyes of expected value. The out is more valuable than pushing the runner up a base…. The sacrifice has long been a noble play in the game. The word “sacrifice” suggests putting the team above individual needs…. The sacrifice may very well be a noble play, but chivalry points can’t be put on the scoreboard.”

This article wasn’t written to say that sacrifice bunts should never happen, but doing it as often as Francona’s team has this year — 51 attempts, fourth most in MLB, 12 more times than the next AL team (the freaking Royals) — is just bad strategy.

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Editors Note: The Academy of Bunting Sciences endorses this original research