(Photo from CBSNewYork)
In what was, for the most part, a pretty perfect Opening Day for the Yankees, the decision to have Brett Gardner bunt twice seemed to be the lone negative for Yankees fans. I have suggested on many an occasion that the “almost all bunts are bad” position that many fans seem to espouse is wrong-headed, and applauded when Joe Girardi suggested that Brett needs to become a better bunter:
So what benefits would working on his bunting have for Gardner? Firstly, working on his bunting to get his success rate over 40% would make bunting for a hit a legitimate weapon in Gardner’s arsenal. If his rate hovers around his OBP, it may not make sense to attempt to bunt for a hit too often, as he would be sacrificing any chance at extra bases without increasing his ability to reach first base. But if he could push his hit rate closer to that of Adam Jones, Angel Pagan, and Ichiro Suzuki, bunting would become a way for Gardner to increase his likelihood of reaching base. As this work by Lucas Apostoleris shows, hitters like Ichiro, Pagan, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Gregor Blanco have actually increased their value through bunting, and there is no reason that a player with Gardner’s speed shouldn’t be able to approach a similar rate of success.
Even if Gardner is not able to increase his success rate, it may make sense to bunt more often in order to keep fielders off balance. Attempting to bunt for a hit more often will force the defense to alter their positioning accordingly. Being that Gardner is a bit of a slap hitter, pulling the defense in at the corners even just a bit makes it more likely that he squeezes some hard hit liners and groundballs through the infield. Furthermore, with a player of Gardner’s speed, you’d like to keep the defense as confused as possible, as forcing defenders to be in-motion before the play begins and having a burner like Gardner going up the line can cause mistakes by fielders. Considering all of this, while Gardner may give up an extra 5 or so outs over the course of the season due to the greater frequency of bunting, it seems likely that he will earn at least that many extra bases due to the impact this strategy will have on opposing defenses.
Now, the key to this strategy is to keep the defense guessing, which means that bunting in every possible situation robs the strategy of the advantage you are trying to cultivate. As noted saberist MGL states in his fantastic game theory analysis of bunting:
On offense though, managers are way too predictable. Their mistake generally is not that they bunt too much or too little (although many managers do). It is that they don’t understand the concept that they should be mixing up their bunts and non-bunts on a random basis. This is a difficult concept for anyone to understand, much less a baseball manager. So, instead, they generally have it in their head that a bunt or non-bunt is 100% warranted in any given situation, and in most cases, the opposing manager on defense knows the same thing.
Now, in situations where a bunt is typically not called for, you might want to keep the defense off-balance by bunting 10 percent of the time, whereas in pure sacrifice situations where a bunt may actually make sense, you might try and keep the defense honest by NOT bunting in 10 percent of situations. As MGL says, doing the same thing in 100% of situations leads to a defense that is well prepared for your strategy and minimizes the chances of a mistake that can help you earn a baserunner rather than an out. Instead, you need to be unpredictable in your bunting, with the amount of times that you do the “unexpected” being dependent on the context.
Obviously, being that we only have one game worth of data to draw from, it is hard to judge whether Gardner is going to be bunting every time he comes up with a runner on first and nobody out. That said, I think we can look at the two bunts today and see two different situations that probably should have called for different strategies.
Score: 1-0 Detroit
Pitcher: Justin Verlander
Baserunners: Russell Martin on 1st
The Play: Gardner attempted a drag bunt to the right side. Miguel Cabrera came in and fielded it, throwing Brett out by a step.
Analysis: Let’s be clear at the outset: Gardner’s OBP is high enough that he should rarely be giving himself up just to gain one base. So unless it is one of those rare situations in which the bunt makes sense in terms of win expectancy, in order for a bunt to be a positive, there needs to be a strategic advantage to the move.
This is the kind of situation where I think it makes sense to encourage Gardner to bunt for a hit on occasion. It was not a clear traditional bunting spot, so the defense, while pulled in a bit as they usually are for Brett, was not pulled in entirely. Furthermore, Miguel Cabrera is not the most nimble of fielders and the field was slick. Lastly, an ace-type pitcher was on the mound, such that moving the runner over and playing for one run if the bunt failed was not a terrible outcome. This is exactly the sort of spot where bunting some of the time will keep the defense thinking and could result in bunt hits and mistakes by fielders over the course of the season. Of course, if they bunt in this sort of spot too frequently, it will sap it of its unpredictability, but taken as a discrete event this was a perfectly acceptable situation in which to try a bunt for a hit.
Score: 4-3 Yankees
Pitcher: Phil Coke
Baserunners: Russell Martin on 1st
The Play: Gardner bunted to the right side, where Coke fielded the ball and nipped Gardner with the throw to Rhymes covering first.
Analysis: This was a more predictable bunting situation, as the Yankees had a one run lead late in the game with Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera waiting in the pen. Additionally, the lefty on the hill made it more likely that Gardner was going to bunt, being that the matchup was unfavorable. The defense was pulled in, expecting a bunt, and I would guess that Gardner swinging away likely would have come as a great surprise to the Detroit fielders. All of these factors suggest that bunting in this situation was an act of giving up an out for a base rather than a move to gain a long-term strategic advantage, a very poor move when the base in question is 2nd base (gaining 3rd base makes it a more defensible move, particularly when considering the strength of the Yankees bullpen, as an important insurance run could score on an out). Again, we need to add a caveat that it does make sense to bunt occasionally in these spots to keep the defense guessing. But considering the fact that the Yankees had already used that gambit once during this game, using it again in an “obvious” bunting situation was a questionable decision.
I know that on its face, this seems counterintuitive, in that I suggested they were right to bunt in the “non-bunting” situation and wrong to bunt in the traditional bunting situation. The key is to remember that teams have been bunting for a long time in situations where giving up the out is a terrible mistake, such that our perception of what constitutes a proper bunting situation is skewed. As such, the “non-bunting” situation is one where the defense might be more susceptible to a bunt hit, and it therefore makes sense to bunt in a greater percentage of such situations, at least until the defense adjusts its strategy. Conversely, the traditional bunting situation was one where the win expectancy went down, such that a sacrifice was not justified in of itself, AND the odds of a mistake by the defense were fairly low due to the predictability of the bunt. Those are the situations where bunting should be kept at a minimum, only done occasionally to keep the opponent guessing.
As I suggested above, we only saw two of these situations today, such that it is possible that these bunts are not representative of the decision-making that the team will employ in bunting situations. Hopefully, Joe Girardi and Brett Gardner will use bunting as a tool to disorient defenses and gain baserunners rather than as a way to trade outs for advancing one runner a single base.
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