In Friday’s game, Mike Matheny attempted to inspire his struggling center fielder Jon Jay by returning him to the top of the lineup. Batting second as part of of his manager’s vote of confidence, Jay proceeded to … sacrifice bunt not once but twice. Nothing like making a couple of outs to break a slump.
But the point of this post is not to argue the best way to end a slump but instead to attempt to show why the non-pitcher sacrifice bunt remains such an alluring play despite evidence that it typically impedes a team’s chances of scoring. We can look to another discipline for possible insight: economics.
Frederic Bastiat highlighted the concept of unseen consequences in his 1850 essay Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen), in which he told the parable of the broken window. We commend the entire piece to you, but to summarize: While at first glance, a shopkeeper’s broken window appears to a be boon to the economy, insofar as it gives the glazier work (that which is seen), the reality is that the shopkeeper could’ve spent his money on something that left him materially better off (that which is unseen).
What does this have to do with sacrifice bunting? Well, one of the reasons that it’s difficult for fans and managers to see any problem with it is that they focus on that which is seen: in the event of a “successful” bunt, a runner moves one base closer to home. Indeed, after we questioned the helpfulness of sac bunting and called them “dubious” on Twitter, we received the following plaint:
sacrificing to get the runner over? How does that help the team? Did you seriously ask that? … sacrifices are not dubious, they are a key to team baseball.
Without question, advancing a runner to the next base makes it easier for the runner to score. You can literally see the runner move to the next base. That’s easy.
But as Bastiat declared, “”Stop there! your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”:
It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.
The problem with the bunt isn’t that it might marginally improve the team’s situation. But rather, it’s the opportunity forgone, since that advancing doesn’t happen in a vacuum or without cost. And it’s the cost that is the unseen part. After all, stadium scoreboards don’t directly keep track of outs — think how much differently we’d view outs if the jumbotron had a big countdown from 27. But the reality is that outs are a precious commodity. When a team sacrifice bunts, it virtually guarantees an out.
This means that the team forgoes the possibility of something better happening, such as reaching base. In the case of Jay, who has a career .352 OBP, those odds are decent — or at least more decent than the sure odds of a sac bunt. And that’s the reason why no sacrifice bunt by the Cardinals this year has positively impacted the team’s win expectancy. This is not some academic sabermetric argument without relevance; it is the real consequence of tactics and directly impacts the outcome of a game.
In the interest of making the unseen seen, let’s do the math. One frequent defense of the sac bunt, at least for Jay, is that his relative lack of hitting ability makes it a wise idea. But a player has to be pretty inept with the stick for that to be true. If we take as an example a tie game in the fifth inning (the second-most common inning for Matheny to order the sac bunt), the break-even on-base percentage for any batter to make it worthwhile is around .261. Jon Jay is struggling this year (.329 OBP) but not that much.
So when Mike Matheny spends Jon Jay’s plate appearance on one thing, he cannot spend it on another. Whether its Matheny or your random fan, the former is easy to see. But it’s the latter that makes all the difference when it comes to sac bunting.