Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sacrifice Bunting

I posted yesterday on certain aspects of situational hitting with the promise that I would write in greater detail as I amassed more data. I'll begin by discussing the sacrifice bunt, a strategy that seems to come and go in terms of use. To begin, I must make a statement about the data I'll be using, since it will apply to most of the  posts I'll be writing in the near future.

All data is compiled and amalgamated from The data I'll be using came from the individual year pages that can be found here, but the data is NOT complete (click this link to get a feel for what's missing). I'll quote directly from baseball-reference:
These totals may be incomplete (3.6% of all plays from 1945 to 1973 are missing or have incomplete accounts, click link for year and team summary of data completeness) for some players prior to 1974 and even complete seasons may not match the official totals due to errors in both the official totals and the play-by-play accounts. Pre-1954 seasons have a substantial numbers of games missing play-by-play accounts and should be viewed as essentially incomplete.
For example, when I was compiling play-by-play data from the 1950 season, about 20% of games had box scores but no play-by-play data. This affects some of the data I'll show in that while box scores do show sacrifice bunts, they do NOT show unsuccessful sacrifice attempts--they're just another out. Keep this in mind, particularly after I show this first chart, which is the percent of sacrifice attempts that are successful from 1950-2013:
This is a two-axis chart, both of which show important trends:
1. The red columns are the sacrifice attempts per game, down a full 50% from the early 1950s. Due to incomplete data there is a very real possibility (probability, actually) that there were even more sacrifice attempts that weren't captured. One of the reasons for this decrease is easily explained--the introduction of the DH in 1973, and while that did introduce a gradual decrease, it's not as pronounced as would be expected. To the best of my knowledge, these attempts do NOT include attempts to bunt for a base hit, but I could be mistaken.
2. The blue line is the percent of sacrifice bunts that were successful, again leaving hits out of the mix. 

The numbers from the early 1950s are probably too high, with the precipitous drop from 1950 to 1956 explained by better tracking of unsuccessful bunts. I have no ready explanation for the peaks and valleys in the success line other than to speculate that as baseball entered the Mini-Dead Ball Era of the 1960s an increased emphasis was placed on bunting as runs decreased. You won't have to wait long to hear  a broadcaster state that bunting isn't as good as it used to be, and unfortunately I just gave them some grist--that drop from 2000 to 2004 is precipitous, but it appears to be coming back as we again enter an era in which runs aren't as abundant as in the past.

This replicates the above chart but breaks it down by league:

No, your opthamologist didn't call and ask me to put that chart in to induce you to make an appointment. The red and blue columns now represent the PERCENT of sacrifice attempts per league, with the black line at 50%, and up to the introduction of the DH, the leagues were very close in sacrifice attempts and even today, the NL only has about a 60/40 advantage in sacrifice attempts--less than I thought before looking into the data. The two lines show successful sacrifice attempts by league, showing remarkably little difference even after 1973. For a strategy that was supposedly passe with the elimination of the pitcher hitting, it appears to be used just as effectively in the AL as the NL.

I wish I had data to measure what I feel is the true determinant of success, whether a sacrifice was essential in scoring a run, but it's not out there, or probably more accurately, not available to me for free. What I find hardest to understand is that while a hitter MIGHT strike out or make an unproductive out that doesn't advance the runner, he has about a 31-32% chance (that would be the on-base percent) of reaching base and advancing the runner, whereas when the sacrifice is put on, it's essentially 0%. Depending on the inning, and especially where in the batting order the team is, I can understand the rationale, and I have no doubt that people infinitely smarter than me have looked into it.

So who have been the most prolific sacrifice bunters in this time span? This chart is sorted by number of sacrifice attempts and shows how often they were successful:

I'll admit I'm surprised by many names on this list--there's no way I thought that a player as recent as Omar Vizquel would lead the list--his number is good enough for #35 on the all-time sacrifice hit list, showing just how much more the sacrifice was used earlier in baseball history. Not only are Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux the only pitchers on this list, they managed to do it in about 5,000-8,000 fewer plate appearances than anyone else. Phil Rizzuto's total is incomplete as he began playing in 1941. Come to think of it, is there anything Greg Maddux DIDN'T do well? As we get closer to Hall of Fame voting I'll review his career and show just how truly remarkable he was--he could pitch, field and apparently help himself at the plate. His like won't be seen again soon. I was very surprised to see Roberto Alomar, given that he typically batted near the top of the order and was a good hitter--he also didn't appear to be that good at it. Juan Pierre is batting .235 when attempting to bunt this year, amazing when the MLB average is around .390, so he apparently is an equal opportunity poor bunter. He's a modern day Lou Brock, an accumulator of stats that are meaningless and is the poster child for the 2013 Marlins--old, bad and with skills that don't matter.

Just for fun, since I just grabbed the data, here's the incidence of sacrifice hits from 1901-2013::
When people state that the game changed in 1920, it CHANGED. While a new baseball was introduced (which was NOT any livlier than in the past), two other changes in particular helped usher in the game very similar to what we see today (what follows is courtesy of the New Bill James Historical Abstract):
1. Newer balls were put into play sooner. After Ray Chapman was hit by a Carl Mays pitch on August 16th, 1920 and subsequently died on the 17th, it was felt that a ball made dark by use was partially to blame. As such, new balls were put into play faster than in the past, making the ball easier to see--and hit.
2. Just as important was the ban of the spitball. Although pitchers who threw it were grandfathered in, this had an immediate effect on batting:

When you look back at the stars of the 1920s and 1930s and see their gaudy hitting numbers, keep in mind that EVERYONE hit back then--when LEAGUE batting averages are above .280, it can safely be called a Hitter's Era. Some day I'll discuss some normalized data I have that attempts to put all hitters and pitchers on a level playing field to try to make comparisons across time. It's not perfect, but it is interesting.

Will the bunt make a comeback in the modern age of baseball? I can't think of any reason why not, but bunting and bunting for a sacrifice are two very different sides of a coin. Bunting for a hit works about 4 out  of 10 times, and sacrifice bunting for an out works about 10 out of 10 times. As the idea of not squandering an out gains traction, riskier plays from the past are reduced. Stolen base percentage has increased markedly over time while attempts to steal have decreased and the sacrifice might be heading that same way.

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