Wednesday, August 13, 2008

We All Make Sacrifices


Sac Bunt












































Since baseball has no time measurement the sport relies on the increment of outs, particularly 27 outs per side (or 24 if you are the home team with the lead after the top of the 9th), to act as the clock. Researchers from George Lindsay to Pete Palmer have discovered long ago the value of not giving away outs, condemning the practice of sacrificing, the act of exchanging an out for 90 feet. Data has shown that foregoing the sacrifice will help produce more offense over the course of a season. Bill Felber in his analysis of the game of baseball wrote in his book "The Book on the Book" that there are just a few times in which a sacrifice is useful. In short specifically when a) a your pitcher not named Micah Owings is batting or b) you have shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt (.259/.273/.358) batting and you are playing for one run. This is because on the whole trading one of your outs for a base decreases the likelihood that a run will score. Probability wise, when there are no outs and a runner on first, the team batting will score an average of .907 runs. Giving up an out for second base decreases the amount of runs scored by -.187.
Armed with this knowledge, why do managers - especially American League managers that do not have to suffer from the dreaded offensive void from a pitcher batting - choose to surrender one of the precious 27 outs? Ron Gardenhire has implemented the sacrifice bunt 39 times thus far in the 2008 season leading the league in the category. The practice allow infuriorates some statheads. Gardenhire has readily accepted 39 outs. Why? More importantly, if sacrificing bunting impedes the ability to amass runs, how are the Twins discarding this commonly accepted theory and are still fifth in the league in runs scored per game?
Gardenhire's main perpretrator for the bunt has been whomever is batting in the two spot (15 sacrifice bunts). The two-hitter has been used without discrimination, it does matter whether it Alexi Casilla (8 sac bunts), who was batting a productive .315/.352/.414 while hitting second, or Brendan Harris (4 sac bunts), who was batting an inferior .250/.327/.354 following the lead-off batter. The decision to ask a batter who has been hitting .250 to lay down a bunt certainly lends credence over requesting someone batting .315 to, but it becomes slightly more logical to bunt when you consider that with a runner on first, both Harris and Casilla have grounded in doubleplays 7% of the time. The choice of sacrificing one out instead of the cost of two is more reasonable: With two outs and no one on base, the chances of scoring a run in that inning decrease from .907 with a runner on first and no outs to .114 with no runners on and two outs.
Casilla is not the only hitter batting over .300 that Gardenhire would rather bunt then swing. Denard Span has recorded 6 sacrifice bunts as well while batting .309 on the season. In addition to the 18 sacrifice bunts by Casilla, Harris and Span, Gardenhire has had the light-hitting Adam Everett to square up on five pitches. Recent power surge notwithstanding, Everett has been as close to dreadful at the plate as possible. His .214/.273/.347 batting line does not inspire much confidence that he will successfully reach base and advance the runner simultaneously. This, of course, was not news. The Twins invested a significant amount of time in the spring getting Everett to hone his bunting skills. Situationally, however, three of Everett's sacrifices have come while he was batting eight with a statistically similar Carlos Gomez (.254/.291/.344) hitting behind him. Technically Gomez has only recorded 2 sacrifice bunts, though he has attempted 56 bunts, reaching base successfully 48% of the time. Not only does Gomez advance a runner, but he also increases the opportunity of converting what would be a sacrifice to a hit with his speed. Under the circumstances with runners on first and second and no outs, the offensive team typically score an average of 1.515 runs.
As described previously, moving a runner up to second at the expense of an out costs the team -.187 runs. When considering how to deploy a hitter like Adam Everett or Carlos Gomez with a runner on first and no outs one must determine what is the chances he will either a) reach first successfully through a hit in turn advancing the lead run, b) record an out but put the ball in play in a manner that would advance the runner on first (a rarity considering the events that have to transpire in order to have a fielder's choice happen while avoiding a doubleplay), c) strike out or d) ground into a doubleplay. Though Everett rarely strikes out (11%) he is prone to hitting plenty of infield flyballs (11%) and his batting average on balls in play (.229) suggest that he will be converted to an out without advancing the runner (or worse recording two outs). Similarly Gomez is a strikeout machine (23.5%) and matches Everett's infield fly propensity (14%) suggesting that the possibility of Gomez propelling the leading runner forward to be minimal. To waste an out with a low level of advancement success can me more detrimental to a ball club than the -.187 at the expense of a sacrifice. If Everett or Gomez fail to move the runner to second at the same time recording an out, the run possibility decreases from .907 to .544 (-.363 net loss). That said a successful sacrifice bunt would gain a potential +.176 runs over a failed plate appearance that resulted in an out with a runner on first.
So why hasn't the excessive bunting cost the Twins runs? Without reviewing a season's worth of play-by-play data, it is hard to determine how many runners that were advanced on those 39 sacrifices ultimately scored but it would be easy to assume that a good percentage did cross the plate. A possible explanation for this has been the Twins' gaudy batting average with runners in scoring position. 31.3% of at-bats the Twins have managed to hit safely, driving in 465 of their 592 runs under those circumstances. Having Casilla or Harris move Gomez to second or third with one out in front of Mauer (.351 with risp) or Morneau (.376 with risp) ensuring that one run will score. Certainly this disregard for 39 outs could have a negative effect on the runs that COULD HAVE scored if Casilla or Span were allowed to swing away as the season progresses but Gardenhire appears to be playing the numbers and it is working for the team.

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