The Bunt that Wasn’t

During the ninth inning of last night’s walk off win against the Orioles, the Yankees had a chance to win the game. It wasn’t that long ago, so I’m sure you can all remember it, but I’ll refresh your memories a little bit: Jorge Posada homered, Curtis Granderson doubled, Russell Martin struck out, Brett Gardner struck out, and Derek Jeter grounded to shortstop (SHOCKED). The most interesting at bat, obviously, was the Russell Martin one.

Despite Curtis Granderson already standing on second base in scoring position, the Yankees opted to have Martin attempt to bunt. He didn’t get it down before reaching a two strike count and ended up whiffing on a Kevin Gregg offering. Was the bunt the right call there?

If you’ve followed my writing for a while (I’m sure you have), you’d know that I’m very much anti-bunting. I don’t like the idea of sacrificing an out for the sake of just one run. However, Moshe has recently had some common-sense discussions on bunting and I’m swaying towards his side more and more.

Last night, I thought that the idea of bunting Curtis Granderson over to third wasn’t a bad idea at face value. After all, the Yankees needed just one run and Granderson’s definitely fast enough to score on a sacrifice fly, and it is the safe bet. But, something else had to be considered.

The on deck batter was Brett Gardner. Even if Martin was successful in moving Granderson to third, there’s a good chance that Gardner wouldn’t have gotten him home. Gardner’s not exactly a “deep fly ball” kind of batter and he’s been struggling to make consistent contact thus far in 2011 so bunting to him probably isn’t the wisest choice. There’s a good chance, though, that if the bunt worked, Gardner wouldn’t have been batting. In fact, I think it would’ve been a certainty that Gardner would’ve been riding the pine with either Eric Chavez or Andruw Jones facing Kevin Gregg. I think we’d’ve had a lot more confidence in either one of those guys knocking a sac-fly home than in Brett Gardner doing the same thing.

Our question remains, though. Was the bunt the right call there? Let’s look at the run expectancy chart and see what we can find.

The Martin at bat featured a runner on second with zero outs. In that situation, the batting team can expect to score an average of 1.0857 runs. So with Martin swinging away, the Yankees were probably going to get that run home. Russell eventually did swing away, but it was after he was in the hole. Perhaps if he was allowed to swing away, the game would’ve ended sooner.

With a runner on third and one out, the situation that would’ve arisen had the bunt been successful, would yield 0.9125 runs. So there’s a drop, but it’s not all that big. We also have to remember that BP’s RE chart assumes that the goal of each inning is to score multiple runs. That’s obviously the goal most of the time, but last night the Yankees needed exactly one run. When exactly one run is needed, going with the bunt is usually okay. How, exactly, does that need of one run change the situation? For that answer, let’s look to Tango Tiger for some help.

That chart shows us not only the run expectancies, but also the run expectancies for each number of runs the team is aiming to score. Again, the Yankees needed just one run to win the game. When looking in that column, we see that the runner on second, zero outs situation gives us a run expectancy of 0.348, meaning that we can expect just one run to score 34.8% of the time in that situation. If we go down to the man on third, one out iteration, we see an expectancy of .478, or 47.8%. By the numbers, it makes sense for the Yankees to bunt in that situation. They needed just one run and their chances of getting it would’ve been higher with Curtis Granderson standing on third base with one out.

I usually go with the numbers and I will here. That bunt was the right call…with a caveat. Had Martin successfully sacrificed himself for Granderson to get to third, there is no way Brett Gardner could’ve been batting next. Quantitatively, that bunt is the right play. Qualitatively, it’s the right play ONLY if Eric Chavez or Andruw Jones pinch hits for Gardner in the next at bat.

A native and resident of the Mean Streets of Southwestern Connecticut, Matt is a narcissistic, misanthropic 20something English teacher who lives by a simple creed: Yankees Only.

4 thoughts on “The Bunt that Wasn’t

  1. Awesome post, Matt. I’m with you; I generally abhor bunting, but Moshe has also made me see the light with regards to it periodically making sense.

    That being said, in addition to the RE, the situation also needs to be taken into account. I would’ve much preferred Martin, currently the second-hottest hitter on the team, to swing away with a man on 2nd and no out. You have to feel pretty good about Martin’s chances of getting a base hit there.

    Had it been Jeter at the plate, I’d have had zero problem with the bunt, since Derek can’t hit the ball past the infield.

  2. oldpep

    One other factor needs to be taken into account (besides the Gardner factor): Martin doesn’t look like a very good bunter. He has 4 sacrifice bunts in his entire MLB career, and after watching him try so far this season, that’s not a surprise.
    With him being such a poor bunter and Gardner being less likely to get the deep fly to score Grandy, I think it was a poor decision.

  3. Professor Longnose

    Very interesting. I’d read other articles (one by Bill James, as I remember) that the rationale for a bunt changes when you need only one run to win the game.

    As oldpep says above, is it possible to take into consideration not just what happens if Martin bunts successfully, but what happens when you ask him to bunt? A certain percentage of the time, he’ll succeed, a certain percentage he’ll fail, a certain percentage he’ll have to hit away with 2 strikes (how does that change the run expectancy?), and a certain percentage of the time he’ll make it to first via hit or error. Are there run expectancies that take this into account?

  4. Greg Pryor

    Small sample sizes apply, but Russell Martin was 1 for 8 against Gregg. The real question is why was Gardner batting in any event with both Chavez and Jones on the bench?

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