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The Brewers will bunt when the moment is right

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Craig Counsell has typically been willing to call for a sacrifice when it makes sense. It just doesn’t make sense very often.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel
Keston Hiura, Professional Bunter
Julia Martins de Sa via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite subject: bunting.

Uttering the word “bunt” is a surefire way to trigger a passionate baseball debate. On one side, you have the folks who swear by the value of a good old-fashioned sacrifice bunt. They decry the lack of bunts in the modern game and claim that the sport is better when more players are dropping one down. Across the aisle, you have the new-school fans who have adopted the #NeverBunt mantra. They will tell you that giving away outs is foolish and counterproductive. Sometimes it seems like these two groups are willing to start a physical war over the topic.

Craig Counsell sides more with the latter. Since the start of 2016, Counsell’s first full season as manager of the Brewers, he has had a position player lay down a sacrifice bunt 47 times, which is the fourth-lowest total among all 30 teams in that span. Counsell has not been shy about his general disdain for bunting. During his playing days, he threatened to punch Prince Fielder if he ever bunted. On one particular occasion when he was criticized for not calling for a bunt, this was his response:

Overall, if we’re trying to score runs, I don’t think bunting is the way to score a lot of runs.

Speaking of scoring runs, the Brewers have not been great at that for the past couple of years. Many point to a lack of situational hitting—including an unwillingness to bunt—as the main culprit. Now that the Brewers have walked it off after a sacrifice bunt twice in their last five games, the narrative that the team needs to lay down more bunts could find itself gaining steam.

News flash: the Brewers are not going to start dropping down significantly more sacrifices. Craig Counsell’s strategy is not changing. If anything, his recent decisions fall right in line with the philosophy he has always had regarding sac bunts.

Why doesn’t the Milwaukee skipper like the sac bunt in general? Because in most situations, it hurts your chances of scoring rather than helping them. That is just a cold hard fact. A quick look at a basic run expectancy table confirms it.

Tom Tango/Tangotiger.net

Before we go any further, let’s clarify that we are not talking about bunting for a hit, bunting with the expectation that a defender will fail to make the play, or the suicide squeeze play. We are talking exclusively about willingly giving up an out to advance a baserunner to second or third. In the tables above, we see that whenever a runner moved forward one base at the expense of an out, the average number of runs scored through the end of the inning decreased. If you want to maximize your run output, sacrificing is generally a bad idea. Counsell’s quote is spot on; you do not score a lot of runs by sac bunting.

We have explained the flaws with a bunt-heavy approach, but the #NeverBunt mentality is not completely correct, either. While the data tells us that most sac bunts are bad, it does not tell us that every sac bunt is bad.

First off, while advancing a runner at the expense of an out decreases the average number of runs a team can expect to score, recording an out without advancing the runner at all hurts that figure even more. This is why pitchers still bunt regularly. They are so highly unlikely to do anything productive that a risk mitigation strategy makes more sense. A manager knows that his pitcher having to bat harms his team’s ability to score, so he might as well choose the option that hurts them less.

Second off, there are two different ways to think about run expectancy. The first kind of table details the average number of runs scored from each base/out state to the end of the half-inning. The second gives the percentage of times at least one run scored from each base/out state to the end of the half-inning.

Tom Tango/Tangotiger.net

In most situations, a sacrifice bunt still hurts your percentage odds of scoring just one run. However, there are notable exceptions. A runner on third base with one out is more likely to score than a runner on second base with no outs. The same is true of runners on second and third versus runners on first and second. This makes sense because a runner can score from third on a wild pitch, a medium or deep fly out, or a routine ground ball if the infield is not playing in. Barring a wild and unexpected aberration, a runner cannot score from second on any of these plays. Statistically speaking, when you need just one run, it makes sense to bunt a runner from second base to third base when there are no outs in the inning.

How does all of this apply to the Brewers? In each of their two recent walk-off wins, the Crew began the inning with a runner on second base and no outs thanks to the new extra-inning rules. The game was tied, so they needed just one run to win. Counsell immediately called for a sac bunt to move the runner over to third base, which increased the team’s odds of scoring one run. The runner scored both times, and the Brewers added two wins to their season total.

Those two instances came after an extra-inning loss against the Padres last Wednesday. In that game, a Lorenzo Cain single and Christian Yelich walk gave the Brewers runners on first and second to begin the ninth inning. They also opened the 10th with the free runner. Counsell did not call for a bunt in either spot, and the Brewers lost. Why did he decline to bunt in that game but called for one to be laid down the following two times?

This is where factors that are specific to individual games and players come into play. In the first potential bunt situation on Wednesday, the Brewers had Cain on second and Yelich on first base. Cain is fast enough to score on a base hit from second base. Manny Pina was at the plate. On deck was Keston Hiura, who entered the contest with a .253 on-base percentage and 36.8% strikeout rate. If Pina had sac bunted, it would have left Hiura up to bat in a situation where contact is a must. Given the way his season has gone, asking Hiura to deliver in that spot would have been a risky proposition. If Pina sac bunts and Hiura strikes out, it leaves the Brewers with runners on second and third with two outs, and their odds of scoring suddenly do not look favorable at all. Hoping for Pina to get a hit (or at least reach base) was the most sensible call, and that is what Counsell did.

In the 10th inning, the Brewers needed two runs to win instead of one. Giving up an out makes it harder to score multiple runs in an inning. If you want to argue that the Brewers should have played for one to tie the game and take it to the 11th, it was a similar situation to the ninth inning. Hiura was the runner on second base. Willy Adames was at the plate. Jackie Bradley, who entered the night with a .228 OBP and 31.6% strikeout rate, was on deck. .116 hitter Daniel Robertson was in the hole. Once again, the Brewers were better off hoping for a hit from Adames, who has been swinging a hot bat, than risking a potential bunt-strikeout sequence that would have left them unlikely to score.

In the walk-off victories, the situation was identical both times. Omar Narvaez, whose average sprint speed ranks in the 12th percentile of all position players, was the runner. The struggling Hiura was at the plate, and Luis Urias was on deck. Urias has posted a .341 OBP and .788 OPS since starting his season 2-for-27 at the plate. Moving the runner over increases your general odds of scoring a run, the guy at the plate has been abysmal, and the hitter on deck has been useful. This is a rare situation where a sac bunt could not make more sense, so Counsell called for it both times. The Brewers won both games.

While Counsell correctly dislikes frequent sacrifice bunting, he is not completely against it. Hiura, who has been one of the team’s worst hitters this year, was the one who sacrificed both times. Throughout his managerial tenure, Counsell has never been against having some of his worst hitters lay down bunts. Here are the position players who have laid down multiple sacrifices under the skipper:

  • Jonathan Villar and Hernan Perez (7 each)
  • Orlando Arcia (5)
  • Yadiel Rivera, Ramon Flores, Martin Maldonado (3 each)
  • Manny Pina, Travis Shaw, Eric Sogard, Keon Broxton, Jake Elmore, Keston Hiura (2 each)

The list consists of a shortstop who was one of the worst offensive players in franchise history, utility infielders, backup catchers, and Hiura. Shaw is the only member with a history of being a well above-average hitter across multiple seasons, but he has substantial platoon splits (career .674 OPS against left-handed pitching). Both of his bunts were against southpaws, and they both came with a runner on second base and no outs.

Craig Counsell understands that aside from when a pitcher is batting, sac bunting is only a no-brainer in very specific situations. Under his style of managing, those scenarios are typically when a runner is on second base with no outs, a terrible hitter is in the box, and his team needs just one run. Perhaps the new extra-inning rule will result in these situations occurring more frequently, but understand that sac bunting is counterproductive far more often than it is valuable. Rest assured that the Crew’s skipper knows what he is doing. When it is time to have a position player drop down a sacrifice bunt, the Brewers will usually do so. Just be aware that those moments are few and far between.

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball-Reference. Run expectancy tables courtesy of Tangotiger.net.