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The evolution of the sacrifice bunt: Part 1

Or: everything you wanted to know about bunting but were afraid someone might write a series of lengthy articles about it.

Justin Sullivan

Few strategies are as galvanizing to the modern baseball fan as the sacrifice bunt. In days of yore, the sacrifice once symbolized the nobility of the team game, the advancement of victory over individual performance. Modern fans have come to see it as a tool for managers that need to be seen managing, and as fodder for post-game interviews. It's somehow simultaneously an indication of the overpaid and pampered athlete, and the desperate nostalgia of a dwindling circle of baseball luddites.

And yet it lives on, despite all predictions of its life expectancy.

I touched on the subject of the sacrifice bunt a few weeks ago, noting briefly that our current skipper, Mr. Wedge, shows more restraint with the tactic than some of his predecessors. However, the article bent toward simplification, born out of ignorance and necessity. And bunting is a subject which is already all too often simplified, reduced to statements like "You have to move the runners over" to "You only get 27 outs and they're too precious to give away." I want to cut through these statements and, to the best of our ability, look at exactly how the sacrifice is being used over time, and what teams are gaining from it.

What will follow is a thorough examination of as many elements of the sacrifice as I could think of, a topic too massive for a single post. Instead they'll be presented in a series throughout the week, with each article focusing on a single element.

At the heart of the study is a series of questions: is the sacrifice bunt in decline? And if so, is it because it's become exposed as a strategy, or is it because the modern baseball player is less fundamentally sound than his mustachioed forefathers?

Part 1 (Today):

  • Introduction
  • A humble appeal

Part 2 (Tuesday):

  • The various game states in the sacrifice situation
  • How these game states have changed over time
  • How the Mariners compare historically in terms of using the bunt

Part 3 (Thursday):

  • Means for measuring the value of the sacrifice bunt
  • How the results of the bunt have changed over time
  • Measuring the Mariners against the league over time

Part 4 (Next week):

  • Pitchers and bunting
  • Historical use of pitchers and sacrifice bunting
  • Comparing pitcher bunting in the AL and NL

Part 5:

  • Miscellaneous bunting questions
  • Is bunting harder or easier on turf?
  • Is the squeeze play effective, currently and historically?
  • Do teams bunt more because of the managers or the players?

Part 6:

  • Individual performances and leaderboards
  • Conclusion

What won't be covered:

The data presented in this study has been collected and categorized from Baseball Reference's Play Index, which provides an incredible amount of detail about each of the 61,666 sacrifice bunt attempts over the past 40.6 years. However, there are certain details that even B-R is unequipped to supply.

  • Rescinded sacrifice attempts, such as a batter putting himself into an 0-2 hole and being forced to swing away.
  • Where on the infield bunts are laid down. Some people have access to this information (I've seen Beyond the Boxscore do pretty neat stuff with it) but sadly, not I.
  • The alignment of the fielders on a given play. As will be discussed in detail on Wednesday, this is really vital information for evaluating the success of a bunt, and we simply don't have it. Someday we'll stick GPS trackers into everyone's Phiten necklaces.

My humble request to you:

My goal with this series is to create the most comprehensive guide to the sacrifice bunt that I possibly can. As any teacher knows, it can be difficult to present a single subject to a wide readership. So if you're an experienced statistician already well aware of game theory, please be patient. And if you're the anti-quantitative sort, please at least scan down to the graphs. And if there's something you don't understand or don't agree with, don't hesitate to comment.

On another note, I've tried to include everything I can possibly think of, but it's likely that I've neglected an interesting avenue for research and discussion. If there's an aspect to the sacrifice bunt that you don't see included in the schedule above, please include it in the contents.