Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

The sac bunt: That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen

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.

3 Responses to “The sac bunt: That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen”

  1. Brandon Says:

    Great piece! Couple thoughts:

    1) The other “unseen” element that is usually dismissed is the failed sacrifice bunt. So it isn’t just that Jay has better than a 30% chance of successfully reaching base without making any outs at all, but it’s that Jay did not have a 100% chance of successfully bunting to begin with. Fans see the successful bunt and say “what a team player! That’s smart inside baseball!” What they didn’t see is that the batter making the deliberate attempt to make an out did not have any assurance that even his humble objective would be accomplished.

    2) There is also an opportunity cost in roster construction – if you intend to bunt with guys on base all the time, it is probably suboptimal to construct a roster full of power hitters who get on base a lot but cannot run.

  2. Brandon Says:

    In other words, if sacrificing with Jay was actually a good idea, it would seem that the Cards should be bunting a lot more. And if you’re going to do that, then the only things that matter are getting somebody on base, making sure that people can beat out bunts and score from second on every single, and play great defense.

  3. gkersh Says:

    Great application of the broken window fallacy to the sac bunt. Nice foreshadowing by Brandon here as Carpenter sac bunted into a double play the day after his comment. The sac bunt is like punting on 4th down. Nobody gets fired for doing it, even though you can clearly demonstrate that it is not a great idea. You typically have something to show for the sac bunt (runner in scoring position), so managers keep doing it. The manager is more likely to be criticized when nobody makes it past 1st base.
    -Gil

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