By Russ Walsh
I was sitting in the stands at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday, June 8, as the Philadelphia Phillies took on the Atlanta Braves. It was the third inning, and the Braves held a 2-0 lead. With the Phillies’ Alec Bohm on third and Ronald Torreyes on first, and no outs, pitcher Aaron Nola came to the plate. Manager Joe Girardi gave the bunt sign. Normally with runners on first and third, a manager has his pitcher bunt to move an additional runner into scoring position. In this case, however, Girardi signaled for a safety squeeze. Nola got a beautiful bunt down toward the charging Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, and Bohm scored easily. One run, one runner moved into scoring position, one very productive out from a pitcher.
I rose to applaud, but before I sat back down, I was saddened by the thought that this is a play that I may never see again. If the National League adopts the designated hitter for the 2022 season, as it appears they most likely will, some position player would have been up in that spot, and some run probability chart would have told the manager that bunting in this situation would reduce the chances of scoring more than one run in the inning. Result? Some .240 hitter swinging for the fences.
I get it. Nobody but the coach of a poor-hitting Little League team really loves the sacrifice bunt. Heck, even as a lifetime .230 hitter in Babe Ruth League baseball, I hated to see the coach flash me the bunt sign. Every hitter, even the poor ones, wants to have a chance to swing away during those very few times a game they get to bat. Even one of the great bunters of all time, the Phillies’ Richie Ashburn, hated a particular kind of sacrifice bunt. As an announcer for the Phillies after his playing days, he would moan in protest whenever a manager ordered a pitcher to bunt, as Nola was, with runners on first and third. I can still hear his lament now: “Why would you just give up an out here?”
And that “giving up an out” is exactly what threatens the bunt in the modern game. Baseball analytics has shown that bunting almost always reduces run expectancy. Analytics have shown that outs may be the most precious commodity to a ball club. Preserving outs and increasing run expectancy have become goals for the modern manager, and so the bunt moves inexorably towards the fate of the dodo.
It wasn’t always that way. In the early 1990s, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Leyland often had his No. 2 hitter, Jay Bell, sacrifice even in the first inning. Bell was considered an ideal No. 2 hitter because he could get the bunt down successfully. He led the league in sacrifice bunts in 1990 with 39 and 1991 with 30. Leyland always wanted to get that first run of the game on the board. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the Houston Astros had their own designated bunting coach, Bunny Mick, and a designated bunting practice field in Spring Training. Mick taught all Astros players, and particularly the pitchers, the art of the sacrifice bunt: square around early, start with the bat at the top of the strike zone, work down to the ball. His star pupil was pitcher Joe Niekro, who from 1979-1980 laid down 31 successful sacrifice bunts in 32 attempts.
The sacrifice bunt is being used less and less in the pro game, and with reduced use has apparently come reduced proficiency in getting a good bunt down. Increased velocity of pitches has also contributed to making bunting a more difficult task.
And still, I lament the passing of the sacrifice bunt. The bunt is one of those small ball plays that adds enjoyment and texture to the game. As each at-bat moves seemingly inexorably toward a home run or strikeout result, it also loses something of what makes it such an incredibly joyful contest to watch. Baseball at its best is a chess match. Not just manager vs. manager strategy, but pitcher vs. batter strategy, runner vs. pitcher/catcher strategy, defensive positioning strategy, starter/reliever strategy, double switch strategy and the agony of the decision to remove a starting pitcher who is pitching well for a pinch-hitter. The sacrifice bunt is a key part of that complex baseball maneuvering.
Here is a metric I would like all Major League managers to consider. The team that scores first in a game wins 68.9 percent of the time. Maybe old Jim Leyland was onto something. It seems a good idea to get that first run on the board, even if it means using the sacrifice bunt, giving up an out, and perhaps reducing total run expectancy a bit. The sacrifice bunt, used properly, can increase single run expectancy, and sometimes that may be what you want. If I have Jacob deGrom or Zack Wheeler on the mound, an early run might be all I need.
Most fans want more offense I suppose, and the designated hitter will provide that, but I prefer the good old fashioned pitchers’ duel where the sacrifice bunt that might lead to the only run scored in the game is in play.
On Thursday, June 10, I was in the stands again, this time with my son, Bruce, as the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler and the Braves’ Ian Anderson engaged in just such a duel. In the third inning, Anderson appeared at the plate with one out and Kevan Smith at first base after a single. Braves manager Brian Snitker ordered a bunt. When Anderson failed in two attempts and the count ran to 1-2, I turned to Bruce and asked, “Does he still have him bunting here with two strikes?” My son said, “Yeah, because mostly he doesn’t care if he strikes out, but he doesn’t want Anderson to hit into a double play with [Ronald] Acuña Jr. on deck.” So, there it is: just another worthy use of the attempted sacrifice bunt.
Russ Walsh is a retired teacher with a particular interest in the history and mystery of the game of baseball. He writes for the SABR BioProject and Games Project and maintains his own blog, The Faith of a Phillies Fan. Contact Russ on Twitter @faithofaphilli1.