The Mariners won their fourth game in a row last night, mostly thanks to a Mike Zunino funk blast in the 5th inning. His three-run shot put the Mariners up for good, but it was what happened immediately afterwards that sparked some debate. With nobody out, Dustin Ackley laid down a bunt with runners on first and second, giving away an out in an inning in which the Mariners seemingly had Jose Quintana on the ropes.
After Zunino's home run, Quintana gave up back to back singles to Chris Taylor and Austin Jackson, as the first five batters of the inning reached base safely. Nobody is hitting the ball better than Dustin Ackley right now, yet Lloyd McClendon opted to have him lay down a bunt, sacrificing an out and setting up an intentional walk to Robinson Cano. Kendrys Morales hit a sacrifice fly with one out, and that's all the Mariners got. Mission accomplished?
Up 3-1 with an elite bullpen, Lloyd wanted just one more run, and he got it. It was a curious decision, and even though Ackley's previous at-bats that night weren't very good, he's never been a hitter who's shown extreme deficiencies against left-handed pitching. There's also the consideration of how he's currently hitting the ball, but Lloyd didn't let that influence him. In fact, he actually referenced Ackley's career 1/7 line against Quintana as justification for his decision, which was either strange or an "I don't have to justify my decisions" troll job to the media.
From an emotional, in-game reaction, the bunt felt like a disappointment. I rarely like giving away outs, and dislike playing for one run unless you're down or tied in the bottom of the 9th -- in almost all situations, letting players swing away is the most desired choice. A ground ball might have achieved the same thing anyways, etc, etc. We've all seen enough baseball to see how this usually plays out, memories of Don Wakamatsu, Eric Wedge, and perhaps even the manager being honored tonight haunting our brains.
It worked out, too -- the M's chances went from 87.5% to 87.7% after the bunt, then to 88.0% after the walk, and finally 89.5% after the Morales sacrifice fly.
Still, a 0.2% gain is fairly risky for something that only succeeds about 80% of the time. Assuming Lloyd knew that the White Sox would walk Cano following a successful bunt (or unsuccessful, for that matter), it's fair to presume that the percentage gain from Ackley's bunt was around 0.5%. That's a pretty small gain for taking the bat out of the two of the team's most dangerous hitters.
While Lloyd capped the team's opportunity to score more than 1 run, loading up the bases for Morales did increase the team's chances of scoring at least 1 run, according to Tom Tango's run expectancy charts. Before the bunt, context-neutral, average teams, have a 64.3% chance of scoring one run or more. With the bases loaded and one out, that percentage rises to 67.9%. If all Lloyd wanted was one run, mission accomplished. But the Mariners hurt their insurance run cushion at the same time, as the RE24 for Ackley's bunt was -0.07, putting a damper on the big inning in favor of a better chance at just one run.
If you ignore the risk of getting down a successful bunt, given the dominance of the Mariners bullpen and the somewhat late-game scenario in which it occurred, last night's decision makes sense. And it worked! One of the best things McClendon has done has not needlessly bunted like previous Mariner regimes, despite how miserable of an offense he's had. Still, given how hyper-aware many of us are about every minutia of decision-making surrounding this team, it's interesting to take a look in retrospect.
Lloyd takes minor risk, gets minor gain, Mariners win. All armchair managing aside, you can't argue with the results, though the process may raise an eyebrow or two.
For more on this, make sure to check out Patrick's fantastic series on sacrifice bunting.