Cardinals news from a Sabermetric point of view

The year of the (unwise) sacrifice bunt

[The following is an article first published Jan. 26, 2013 in The 2013 United Cardinal Bloggers Annual: An Unexpected Journey.]

For Mike Matheny‘s preseason talk of being more aggressive on the bases, 2012 turned out to be the Year of the Sacrifice Bunt. Playing station to station with a guaranteed out isn’t most people’s idea of aggressive.

The Cardinals tried to sacrifice bunt 96 times in 2012, fifth-most in the National League. But since the Cardinals led the league in on-base percentage, they also had more chances to bunt. So normalizing for the number of base runners that they had, their sacrifice-bunt rate was about league-average:

Team Sac Attempts Runners Sac-bunt rate
MIL 117 3717 3.1%
CIN 111 3593 3.1%
LAD 110 3684 3.0%
COL 100 3657 2.7%
MIA 93 3511 2.6%
PHI 94 3648 2.6%
SDP 94 3733 2.5%
PIT 85 3407 2.5%
LgAvg 90 3669 2.5%
STL 96 4041 2.4%
SFG 91 4024 2.3%
ARI 84 3785 2.2%
NYM 80 3655 2.2%
HOU 73 3385 2.2%
CHC 67 3380 2.0%
ATL 74 3770 2.0%
WSN 71 3718 1.9% 
Sac-bunt attempts 96
Success rate 72%
Attempts leader (pitcher) Lohse (20)
Attempts leader (non-pitcher) Jay (14)
Win-probability added -1.6

Even so, the practice — contrary to its supposed purpose — actually cost the team run opportunities last year. That’s because of the concept of opportunity cost. It’s one thing to have your pitcher sacrifice; with an average OBP of .275 this season, Cardinal pitchers don’t offer much hope of getting on base and avoiding an out anyway, so they may as well make their out productively. But the Cardinals blew the league away in OBP last year with .338 — the next-closest was Colorado at .330 — leading for the second year in a row. Why would a team with so much firepower voluntarily cost itself opportunity?

The cold fact is that sacrificing bunting cost the Cardinals scoring (and therefore winning) potential. With one of the league’s most-potent offenses, a manager should want to give his hitters as many chances to do what they are actually good at — hitting — and not take the bats out of their hands. Unfortunately, Matheny did the latter in 2012. With nearly every non-pitcher’s sacrifice bunt taking away win expectancy, it’s reminiscent of the business that takes a loss on each item sold but thinks it can make it up in volume. The more you do it, the worse it is.

But perhaps the strategy was the early-season idea that Matheny sought feedback on and then learned from. After all, 2012 was his first managing gig at any level, and the man is entitled to a learning curve. Let’s review the club’s sac-bunt rate by month of the season to see if the manager did indeed course correct at some point:

Not only did Matheny not check his bunting habit, he actually leaned on it more, bunting with non-pitchers 29 times in the second half of the season, more than 60% more than he did in the first half. Nor did it stop in the playoffs, with Jay bunting after a leadoff double in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the NLDS, which actually decreased the team’s chance of winning (the Cardinals didn’t score in the inning), and Daniel Descalso in both the play-in game in Atlanta and in Game 1 of the NLDS. Granted, Descalso is only a career .318-OBP hitter, but if you can’t trust him to make enough contact to the right side to advance a runner to third, maybe he shouldn’t be in the bigs. (To his credit, Matheny did avoid the bunt when he had other opportunities, such as in Game 2 of the NLDS.)

Looking for a reason

But why should Matheny, whom David Laurila in Fangraphs once quoted as saying “I’m willing to do anything if it gives us a better chance to win. I’ll take whatever information I get,” habitually use known unwise tactics? Perhaps one reason is found in the same article: Matheny goes on to say “For me, first and foremost is gut instinct.” That, of course, is the managerial trump card, but which unfortunately undoes any kind of advantage gained from “whatever information” he gets.

At some point, however, this was an organizational failure, since if Matheny didn’t recognize the problem, others should’ve. Why didn’t members of the coaching staff or the front office reason with Matheny? It’s unclear both whether anyone on the Matheny’s staff has the level of freedom to critically address Matheny’s ways or whether they find anything in the sacrifice bunt practice to criticize to begin with. As for the front office, the Cardinals have several smart people who surely are aware of the negative impact of unwise sacrifice bunting, but whether their “data” gets into Matheny’s hands or the manager “sifts” through it and discards it is unknown.

It’s certainly true that the Cardinals as an organization are fairly conservative and with at least a couple of variables in place for the 2012 season — no Albert Pujols, no Tony La Russa — they were even more loathe to experiment with seemingly radical departure from traditional tactics. For all of the acclaim of Moneyball and even without Pujols, the Cardinals still aren’t in a place to have to squeeze out every last win and scrounge for any competitive advantage, so incrementally improving their win-expectancy isn’t high on their radar screen. And especially not in 2012, when they had an extra wild-card spot to fall back on. With so much on-field talent, and a payroll that is outsized for their market size, they simply didn’t need to worry about such niggling matters as whether sac bunting in the wrong spots hurts them. After all, they were second in the league in runs scored per game. How bad could sacrificing be?

Most egregious bunts of the year

With so many ill-advised sacrifice bunts to choose from, choosing the worst is a challenge. Following are a handful of heinous sacrifice (attempts):

Date Batter Opp Pitcher WPA Play Description Note
7/21/12 Skip Schumaker  CHC Matt Garza -0.08 Bunt into Double Play Schumaker has a .538 OBP in 14 PAs vs. Garza.
9/9/12 Matt Carpenter  MIL Manny Parra -0.04 Bunt into Double Play Good thing the Cardinals were ahead by two runs when this happened (they won by one).
4/15/12 Tyler Greene  CHC Paul Maholm -0.03 Bunt Popout Greene had a platoon advantage, and it was only the third inning.
9/12/12 Yadier Molina @SDP Luke Gregerson -0.03 Sac bunt Mike Matheny had Yadier Molina sacrifice bunt with the team down a run, a runner on second base and one none out.  Molina has a .368 OBP this season. According to the 2nd Guesser app, hitting away has a net win expectancy of -8.91%. But for a sac bunt, it’s -13.04%. That is, the Cardinals’ win expectancy declines more for a sac bunt than for swinging away. To an idea of how bad an idea it was, the batter needs to have an OBP approaching .215 for it to be a good idea. It was an overly conservative play from a manager who clearly is feeling pressure and lacks confidence in his players, when just the opposite is needed.
7/5/12 Jon Jay  COL Christian Friedrich -0.02 Sac bunt A first-inning bunt by a career .359-OBP hitter, against a pitcher not named Christy Mathewson.
5/1/12 Jon Jay  PIT Charlie Morton -0.01 Sac bunt Ditto. What are the chances that Jay doesn’t at least pull the ball off a righthanded pitcher?
9/21/12 Carlos Beltran @CHC Chris Volstad -0.01 Sac bunt  Jon Jay leads off the game with a double. Matheny decides to have Carlos Beltran sacrifice bunt. That’s right: The #2 batter of the game. The Cardinals home-run leader, with 29. Against Chris Volstad (2012 FIP: 4.99). At Wrigley Field, where Beltran is at his most deadly (career .426 OBP/.599 SLG)
9/3/12 Jon Jay  NYM Collin McHugh -0.01 Sac bunt the same Jon Jay who tripled in his first at-bat, and the same Jon Jay who leads the team with a .393 OBP. Yes, a sac bunt in the third inning off a rookie pitcher. Yes, a sac bunt immediately following your own pitcher knocking a line-drive double. 

Even Tony La Russa didn’t bunt this much — or did he?

With so many ill-timed bunts this year, the fan is tempted to think that Matheny has gone beyond what his sometimes-conventional predecessor employed. But people tend to forget that, for a former American League manager, Tony La Russa had spent enough time in the National League (or perhaps simply in baseball) that by his final years, he was frequently taking the bat out of his players hands, too. Look at the last five years of TLR’s reign:

Total sac bunts*
2007 97
2008 104
2009 106
2010 99
2011 112
2012 104
Matheny (2012) 104
La Russa (recent average) 104

* includes bunted balls and SO while bunting

Matheny’s rookie campaign “featuring” 104 bunt was perfectly in-line with the future Hall of Famer’s average over his final five seasons. What about the more important numbers, though, like success rate and win-probability added via the bunt?

Year Total sac bunts Success rate WPA
2007 97 72% -1.6
2008 104 69% -1.7
2009 106 66% -1.3
2010 99 69% -1.3
2011 112 78% -2.2
2012 104 72% -1.6
Matheny 104 72% -1.6
La Russa (recent) 104 71% -1.6

Matheny’s team was a virtual spitting image of La Russa’s — both were equally adept at sacrificing and equally inept at gaining any benefit from the practice.  So perhaps that’s a reason why Matheny had so much leeway, if indeed the organization noticed anything unwanted in the first place. After all, if he’s simply repeating what the Hall of Famer did, why question it?

In conclusion

So if Mike Matheny bunted at roughly the same rate as Tony La Russa, and the players executed at roughly the same level, and the team cost itself about the same in win expectancy, what can one say? Well, for starters, as much as it bothered a lot of observers, the practice clearly wasn’t any more pronounced than it was during previous years. So perhaps fans’ sensitivity — that is, their baseball IQ, if you will — is improving. That’s of course an encouraging sign. On the flip side, however, that means that the Cardinals, having endured yet another nearly identical season of self-inflicted deprivation, have yet to learn this fundamental reality of game strategy. The team has literally cost itself scoring opportunities by its sac bunting practice every year for the past six (and probably more). That is, the Cardinals would’ve been a better team if they hadn’t tried a single sacrifice bunt over the last six seasons. Will they change in 2013? They have some free runs (and wins) waiting for them, if they want them. All it requires is sacrificing some conventional wisdom.


[Data courtesy of]