The return of evil bunts

If you’re Joe Girardi, the answer couldn’t be more obvious; BUNT!

Yes, once again, the supposedly numbers-savvy manager of the Yankees, with his binder full of notes and numbers and so on, decided to give away an out in one of the most inopportune moments possible. For one thing, the Yankees gave the Athletics one of their three remaining outs at a point when it looked like their closer, Andrew Bailey, was really scuffling against the Yankees’ hitters. For another, because the Athletics pitched around Curtis Granderson, throwing a steady diet of pitches away and only challenging him once in eight pitches, Girardi’s decision effectively took the bat out of the Yankees’ two best hitters right now.

And sure enough, it didn’t pay off. Mark Teixeira weakly popped up a fastball to the third baseman (though to be fair, the outcome of that at bat may well have been different if the first pitch of the at bat had been called a ball instead of a strike), Robinson Cano walked to move the tying run to third and the winning run to second, but with two outs Nick Swisher‘s fly ball did them no good as Coco Crisp caught it to end the game, and the Yankees came up one out short of tying the game.

One out. It’s a running theme for the Yankees’ this season, as their manager proves over and over that he simply does not understand the value of an out. After the game, Girardi said the decision to bunt was based on “factors,” namely a desire to stay out of the double play. That sound you just heard was my keyboard being thrown through the wall. Aside from the problem with managing from a position of fear of a somewhat random outcome, once Granderson walks, the double play is back in order! So even on Girardi’s own terms this doesn’t make sense, and really makes even less sense, given that with Teixeira at the plate, the double play is set up with one out and a slower runner at the plate, with a batter who’s not hitting as well as Jeter right now.

Now obviously there’s no guarantee the Yankees come back to win that game in the counter-factual in which Jeter swings away, but in either event the decision to give away an out clearly cost the Yankees last night. It’s not at all unfair to say Girardi cost the team a game last night, and once again, his answers after the game raise as many, or more, questions about his decision making as the actual decisions do. Which is only logical, because there’s just no defense for that decision.

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

30 thoughts on “The return of evil bunts

  1. They are evil, aren't they.

  2. michael

    long live small-ball! in the AL East. with the league leading offense and a resurgent hall-of-famer batting.

    ::shudders::

  3. williamjtasker

    Such is the life of a manager. If Jeter hits into a double-play, he is asked why Jeter wasn't bunting. <shrug>

    • JeffG

      When you need two runs? Nobody is going to ask why not bunt, the answer is pretty obvious. Bunting for one run – ok maybe in some circumstances (though, even if they were down only 1 run, having JETER bunt with 1st and 2nd nobody out in the 9th seems like a bad idea). Bunting on the bet that you can get a 2 run hit with Teix/Cano (and maybe Swish)? If you're going to rely on getting a two run hit to tie the game anyway, why expect Teix (who, let's face it, doesn't have the best BA this year) or Swish to come through and Jeter not to?

    • BrienJackson

      Only by a non-intelligent person.

  4. jay_robertson

    and if Jeter had hit into one of his patented (and likely trademarked) double plays, every blogger on earth would have crept out from under a rock and screamed at Joe for not bunting. "IDIOT – everyone KNOWS Jeter hits into double plays." Or something to that effect.

    Really – why not go into the spectacular display of hitting prowess that came after. One could easily make a case for Grandy, Tex, Cano, or Swisher doing SOMETHING. (not yelling, but can't find italics for emphasis.) I know – DJ has been hot lately – but so have Cano, Grandy, and to a lesser extent Swish. I'm still tempted to stick with my characterization of Tex as a black hole – he either hits a bomb or looks like a buffoon. Trouble is, more at bats end up buffoon than bomb. That "no-trade" clause of his is starting to look as nearly as bad as A-rod's 17 year contract.

    • BrienJackson

      On the first point, c'mon. Let's not get into the realm of caricature here. Only an idiot would scream about Jeter not bunting when he was 3-3, 23 for his last 46, and the opposing pitcher has taken a 6-3 lead and brought the winning run to the plate without recording a single out.

      On the second point, I don't know. Granderson was clearly pitched around with 1st base open, and in fact should have walked even sooner as "strike" 2 was clearly out of the zone. Tex swung at a bad pitch, but it was in the zone and taking it would have meant being down 0-2, and again the bad strike zone cost him as the first pitch was clearly outside. Cano walked in a run, and then Swisher hit a ball about 395 feet. None of that seems particularly head-desk worthy, it's just a good example of why you don't have Jeter give away an out.

  5. Bill

    It's called managing "not to lose" rather than managing to win. Letting Jeter swing away there would have been a gutsy call, but had he hit into a double play (which is not quite the random outcome referred to here), Girardi would have been killed for allowing that happen. That being said, it's worth the risk. By all appearances, the Jeter of 2009 has returned for the moment. Might as well try to see if the magic could have been extended.

    • BrienJackson

      It's sort of a random event in the sense that you have to hit a groundball a certain way to make it happen, especially since Jeter runs well. And given the situation, the fielder's first instinct is probably going to be to go to first on any borderline grounder to be sure to get the out (which also highlights how stupid the bunt is). You might as well just say you were afraid he'd strike out.

  6. Dave

    I agreed with the decision to bunt. You move the tying run into scoring position with 1 out and the middle of your lineup about to come up. That sounds like a scenario that will produce wins more than losses .

    • BrienJackson

      Except that Jeter and Granderson are better hitters right now than Tex and Cano. So I'd rather have them swinging away than ask Tex or Cano to come up with a hit.

      • Makonnen

        The bunt to me made sense at the time, but you're right on this one, Brien. It seems like Tex lately has become an all-or-nothing batter, a far cry from his career ~.290 average before this season.

      • jay_robertson

        OK – can I latch onto that? (who's hot, and who's not, at this moment.)

        Can you recall anyone changing their batting order on a fairly constant basis, as batters get hot or cold? I only follow the Yankees – that's enough to keep me busy – and their batting order is pretty much set in stone. Was just wondering if anyone had changed the order based on who was hitting, and if it had worked? Or at least, seemed to work.

        • BrienJackson

          I don't really pay close enough attention to anyone else's batting order to say, but I don't know what that has to do with the situation. Jeter was the guy at the plate, Granderson was the guy on deck. At the moment, those are the two best hitters on the team, and Girardi's decision effectively took the bat out of both of their hands while simultaneously decreasing their odds of winning the game. How does that make sense?

      • And there's the fact that the bunt decreased the team's chance to win from 35.5% to 31.5%. Regardless of who was coming up next, the sacrificing of that 1 out gave them less of a chance to win.

  7. williamjtasker

    I guess the bottom line is that the before the bunt, the Yankees' win probability was around 37 percent and went down to around 32 percent after the bunt. Fair enough.

  8. One additional thing: neither Granderson nor Teixeira are high-average hitters–much of their value is from walks and extra-base hits. But if either walks, the bunt offers no advantage becuase the runners would have moved up anyway. If either gets an extra-base hit, the bunt offers no advantage, because the runners would have scored anyway.

    On the season, Granderson has 65 singles, 65 extra-base hits, and 68 walks. So one two-thirds of the possible positive outcomes of Granderson's plate appearance, you've given up an out for nothing. That has to affect the calculations.

  9. KPW

    Also Tex has grounded into more double plays (11) than Jeter (9) this year. And Jeter was a much hotter hitter. Personally I was screaming at the TV for Girardi not to bunt [sigh].

  10. Michael

    Joe Girardi was managing scared. He did it to "avoid a double play." He wanted to let his better hitters knock in the run? Oh really? By giving up one of your chances youve taken the bat out of Grandersons hand and put it in the hand of a guy who grounds into double plays with a higher frequency than Jeter. This is so self defeating its maddening. Not only did he not lower the chances of his batter hitting into a double play, he increased them by putting a slower runner on first and at the plate. Taking the bat out of Grandersons hands is just not smart either. I dunno this guy makes no logical sense. And his explanations are what earns him the moniker of Joe Ritardi.

  11. Michael

    Oh i think the Yankees are now 7th in the AL in sacrifice bunts. All Hail NL Style Ball!!

    • Rich7041

      Is there a stat for sac bunts attempted? That'd be interesting, since it seems the Yanks are not very proficient at it.

  12. I absolutely hated the decision to bunt, for many reasons. But I didn't even think about the excellent point you made regarding the double play being back in order once Granderson walked. You have to figure the A's will probably pitch around Granderson both to set up the double play and because he's the best hitter on the Yankees this season. And they did. Obviously, if Teixeira had hit into a DP, it would have been worse than if Jeter had. At least if Jeter had, you still would've had your best hitter up as the tying run. So the Fear of the DP excuse is not only stupid, but doesn't even fit the situation.

    If the bunt had been in, say, the 7th inning rather than the 9th, I could have stomached it better. I still would be against it, because I'm very anti-bunting, but it wouldn't throw me into the same type of rage. I just don't think it is ever acceptable to willingly give up an out in the 9th inning when you are trailing, period.

  13. forged

    Sadly, what we think about Giardi's strategy for when to bunt seems to have no noticeable impact to how he manages the game. Frustrating? Yes. Maddening? Yes.

    Chances of his altering his strategy any time soon? Very likely none.

    The only slight silver-lining is that at least Jeter's at-bat produced a productive out. But considering the game circumstances, that probably isn't enough of a justification to try it (imho).

  14. LarryAtIIATMS

    Um … haven't we covered this ground before? The first and second, no out bunt attempt is often a good idea. I won't repeat the arguments I've made on this point, many times before, supported by the sabermetric studies. For example see here: http://bit.ly/iM49wp.

    The move that's more difficult to defend is the intentional walk. If bunting provoked the intentional walk, then on average that's a good thing.

    The knee-jerk criticism of every decision to bunt, a reaction that's popular here, is simply wrong. The thought that this reaction is supported by sabermetrics is equally wrong. The decision to bunt with first and second, none out, is at worst DEBATABLE, meaning that respectable arguments can be made on both sides.

    • BrienJackson

      The difference here though is that the Yankees needed *two* runs, not one, so increasing your odds of scoring *one* run is completely worthless. As William and The Captain pointed out, the successful sacrifice decreased the Yankees' win expectancy by roughly 1/9, even before you factor in that Jeter is arguably the team's best hitter at the moment, and the decision resulted in Granderson not getting anything to hit either.

      To be explicit about it, had the deficit been one run, I wouldn't have had any problem at all moving the tying and winning runs to second and third. But that's not what the situation was, and playing for one run when you're down two in the 9th rather obviously makes no sense.

      • LarryAtIIATMS

        Brien, I am not talking about the odds of scoring one run, I am talking about the number of runs that the Yankees could be expected to score. I have carefully explained all this in my earlier article. Jeter's bunt ATTEMPT increased the Yankees' run expectancy. Check the charts. The fact that Jeter's bunt attempt resulted in a successful sacrifice decreased the Yankees' run expectancy, but there are many outcomes from a bunt attempt other than the successful sacrifice. The intentional walk following the successful sacrifice increased the Yankees' run expectancy (and again, I'm not talking about the odds of scoring a single run) above what they were before the bunt attempt.

        Obviously, the decision whether to bunt is more complicated than simply consulting the charts. I went through all this in my article. The biggest factor not reflected in the charts is whether the opposing team is expecting a bunt. An unexpected bunt is a VERY good thing in this situation. If Jeter is arguably the team's best hitter at this point, and as a result the A's were not looking for a bunt, then that's a strong argument TO bunt. If the A's were looking for the bunt, that's an argument to swing away. All this assumes that all we're thinking about is the result of last night's game … but if last night's bunt causes opposing teams to guard against the bunt when Jeter is batting in that situation, that's also a good thing for the Yankees, as it will cause these teams to play other than in the optimum position to prevent hits and cause outs.

        • BrienJackson

          Well they didn't intentionally walk Granderson, though they didn't really give him anything good to hit Grandy still needed 8 pitches and a full count to work the walk. As for the rest of it, well it's kind of amorphous, as I don't know if the A's were *expecting* the bunt or not, but they didn't seem to have much trouble fielding it in any case.

          And you also have to consider that Bailey just wasn't pitching very well. He gave up a home run to Posada and then put Martin and Gardner on base before Jeter came to the plate. Why help that guy out? To say nothing of the fact that he didn't pitch terribly well to Granderson, Tex, Cano, or Swisher either. You're right, decisions can't just reflect charts, because a lot of context is lacking from the charts, but there's a lot more context in favor of not bunting than bunting in this case.

          And if nothing else, sooner or later Girardi's rationales have to make sense as well. He can't very well just keep offering up face-palm worthy explanations and not expect a poor decision making process to come back to bite the team later.

          • LarryAtIIATMS

            I'm not going to get into the explanations Girardi offers for his decisions.

            I'm also not saying that Girardi made the right decision here. I am simply repeating what every study I've ever read has said about this decision, which is that it's a complicated decision, with no clear right or wrong answer in any case. To take the position that the decision was clearly wrong is not consistent with sabermetrics. If you'd argued that the charts slightly favor Girardi's decision but that the context weighed against it, I wouldn't have commented, and you would have reached a more nuanced conclusion as well.

            I get that Bailey wasn't pitching very well, but that's generally going to be the case when you have runners on first and second, none out. So the quality of the pitching is reflected to an extent in the chart numbers. Moreover, it's not clear which way this factor cuts. If Bailey HAD been pitching well, I might have had Jeter swing away. I might be LESS inclined to (as you say) "give outs away" against a Justin Verlander.

            As for the context you mentioned, the most important piece of context is whether the A's were looking for the bunt.

          • williamjtasker

            The voice of reason.

  15. Hugh

    Ah. I do miss Larry!

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