There's perhaps no play in baseball that further divides old school fans and analysts from the more sabermetrically-inclined new school crew than the sacrifice bunt. What one calls a gritty, smart "baseball play," the other calls pointless and a waste of a perfectly good out. Personally, I've always been on the new school side. I just don't like the idea of giving up outs and killing chances for a potentially bigger inning by sacrificing one. I can, however, see the value in a sac bunt in certain situations or at certain times in certain games, and that's why I'm not sure how I feel about Joe bringing it back this weekend. Joe has used the sac bunt a time or 2 in the past, usually in situations that left more people scratching their heads than clapping their hands. Against the Orioles, he damn near featured it as the focal part of the Yankee offense.
Twice in each of the first 2 games this past weekend Joe went to the sac bunt with a runner in scoring position, with mostly positive results:
- In the 1st inning on Friday, he had Ichiro try to sac bunt Brett Gardner to third base after Gardner led off the game with a double. After fouling 2 attempts off, Ichiro struck out and Gardner was stranded at second.
- In the 9th on Friday, Ichiro sac bunted again with runners on 1st and 2nd and nobody out. The sacrifice worked and 3 batters later the Yanks won on Vernon Wells' walk-off single.
- In the 5th on Saturday, Gardner laid down a sac bunt in the same situation and successfully moved the runners to second and third. Both runners came around to score on consecutive singles to tie the game.
- In the 6th on Saturday, Luis Cruz sacrificed Lyle Overbay to second after Overbay led off the inning with a single. Eduardo Nunez singled Overbay home for the eventual game-winning run in the next at-bat.
A total of 4 sac bunts that contributed to 5 runs scored, 4 of which were game-tying or game-winning runs. That's a pretty solid job of executing both the bunts and the follow-up at-bats to get the necessary hits or walks needed to cash in on the sacrifice. Still, as a natural anti-sac bunt guy, I can't help but look back at some of those plays and wonder what could have been. Had Ichiro just swung away in that 1st inning AB, could he have gotten on base and started a bigger rally with Robinson Cano coming up next? If Gardner had swung away in the 5th on Saturday, he could have been the 3rd hit in a string of 5 straight instead of the first out of the inning and more runs would have scored. Against a guy known for being prone to the big inning like Chris Tillman, I think I would have rather seen Gardner go up looking to hit rather than looking to give the pitcher a free out.
The one play that I can't argue with was the 6th inning decision on Saturday. Tie game, veteran pitcher who had found his rhythm on the mound, best bullpen guys available for the hold and the save, series victory against divisional rival you're chasing in the playoff race on the line, and the bottom of the order up? Yeah, that's the time to use it and put a guy in scoring position. And it worked perfectly. But the play in the 9th on Friday didn't make a lot of sense to me despite the eventual game-winning hit. Sure it moved the winning run into scoring position, but by leaving first base open it also took the bat out of Cano's hands. The O's walked him to get to Hafner and Wells, which were much better matchups for them. If the ultimate result of a sac bunt is that it takes the chance for your best hitter to drive in the RISP away from him, is that really a smart baseball play?
I say all of this assuming that all 4 of these sac bunts were Joe's call and not the players themselves. Joe's track record puts his fingerprints all over each play, and I'd like to think that a guy with a reputation like Ichiro's would be smart enough to not sac bunt as the second batter in the game. With what Joe has to work with for a lineup right now though, I can understand why he's doing it. It'd be nice to play for the bigger inning, but he doesn't have the hitters to consistently do that. This team still needs every run it can get, and if that means playing for 1 sometimes at the expense of an out, so be it. It's a tad frustrating to sit and think of what could have been after an inning. It's also more than a tad frustrating to see what never was sometimes when these guys are left to swing away. That being the other option, I think I can live with the sac bunts for now.
(Photo courtesy of the AP)