Phillies Promise to Intentionally Make Outs in 2015
Just when you thought the Philadelphia sports landscape couldn’t get any weirder, it does. Yesterday, Ryne Sandberg said the team plans to intentionally make outs in the 2015 season.
No, the Phillies aren’t working on an extreme version of the Sixers’ tanking strategy. Sandberg said the Phillies plan to play small ball this year. “That’s something that I’m stressing this spring,” Sandberg told reporters in Clearwater, Florida. “We’re working on it. We’re practicing it. If it’s not a bunt, it could be a hit and run. Get a baserunner, make something happen — really to set the tone for the season.”
MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki writes the Phillies have six sacrifice bunts this spring — four more than any other team. Yesterday, they sac bunted twice, once with runners on first and second and no outs. They scored one run after those two sac bunt attempts.
Bunting is, generally, a bad strategy. Teams only get 27 outs in a game. Sac bunting twice in a game, like the Phillies did yesterday, reduces the number of outs you have to play with to 25. If a pitcher has just allowed a runner (or two!) to reach base, it seems odd you’d give him a chance to get in a groove by purposely giving him one of the three outs he needs that inning.
According to these run expectancy matrices, a runner is more likely to score from first with no outs (when most sac bunts happen) than a runner on second with one out (the result of a successful sac bunt). Other variations of the sacrifice bunt come up the same: On average, a team is less likely to score a run after a sacrifice bunt. This comes from analysis of every single baseball play between 1950 and 2010.
Sacrifice bunting has long been a baseball strategy. And perhaps it made sense in the dead-ball era, when teams barely scored. But research has shown sacrifice bunting is normally a bad idea. Baseball blog Fangraphs called it “the real rally killer.” And bunting is hard! Just because a player goes for a sacrifice doesn’t mean it’s going to work.
There are caveats. Sandberg said both of the sac bunts yesterday were actually attempts to bunt for a base hit. The Phillies were bad offensively last season, and the lineup appears to be even weaker this year. Bunting can be a good strategy if there’s a weak hitter at the plate: If he’s incredibly likely to make an our anyway, he might as well try to advance the runner. This is why it’s usually a good idea for the pitcher to attempt a sacrifice bunt.
WPA (win probability added) is a stat that measures, play by play, how much that contributed to the probability of a team winning a game. Last season, the Phillies were at -0.3 in WPA. (In non-pitcher bunts, however, the entire league finished at 0.2 WPA; the Royals, who won the AL pennant, were at 1.0.)
And there may be something to it in spring especially. “Considering that the Phillies are attempting to get younger in a rebuilding effort, playing small ball — whether as a spring-only strategy or with regular season involvement — can have some instructional value,” Crashburn Alley’s Bill Baer writes. The games don’t count. Why not practice bunting in them?
Of course, when Charlie Manuel was named manager in 2004, he said the team would be sac bunting in order to manufacture runs. In Manuel’s third season, 2007, the Phillies scored their most runs since 1930. Of course, that was due to the team’s incredible power and not its sacrifice bunting — but a fan can dream, right?
Well … no. The Phillies are averaging just over 2.5 runs a game in spring training so far. Maybe they ought to bunt every plate appearance.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.