Michael/Male/26-30. Lives in United States/Pennsylvania/Wexford/Christopher Wren, speaks English. Spends 20% of daytime online. Uses a Fast (128k-512k) connection. And likes baseball /politics.
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Friday, April 07, 2006

Fielding Redux: Bunt Defense 

The bunt is one of the mostly bitterly argued over aspects of the game of baseball these days. Bunting for a base hit is one of the most fun moments in a game, as players scramble to grab the ball and the batter scrambles to beat the throw to first. The necessity of the use of the sacrifice bunt to move players over to scoring position is an article of faith for small ballers and a long-term target of criticism for sabremetricians. As Charles Euchner notes in his excellant book The Last Nine Innings: “The sacrifice bunt is part of baseball’s moral appeal: work hard, contribute to the team, play a role, be selfless, give yourself up for the greater good.” George Will opens his book Bunts, a compellation of his columns on baseball, with a brief dissection of a sacrifice bunt situation that played out in Game Six of the 1997 ALCS between the Orioles and Indians where the Orioles played themselves out of an inning by attempting a sac bunt to move a runner over.

How the Phillies play the bunt should be of particular interest to Phillies fans because we play in the National League where there is a lot of situational bunting due to the fact that the pitcher bats ninth and frequently needs to be substituted or called upon to lay down a bunt. Scoring is lower, so in theory every run counts more.

According to The Fielding Bible, here is how the Phillies and the rest of the NL East defended against the bunt in 2005, compared with the rest of the MLB:

Opportunities / Score
1. Oakland: 30 / .662
2. St. Louis: 40 / .614
3. Cleveland: 37 / .605
4. New York Mets: 63 / .587
5. Washington: 56 / .570
9. Florida: 59 / .559
12. Atlanta: 52 / .533
19. Phillies: 51 / .504

Notice right away that the number of bunts defended is far higher than that of an AL team. The average NL team defended 54 bunts in 2005. The average AL team against 37.

Notice also that TFB ranks teams by score: overall there are two different types of bunts, the bunt for a hit and the bunt to move a runner over. The possible outcomes to a bunt vary. There is the hit, the pure out (where nobody advances and the runner is simply out), the double play, and the sacrifice. TFB figures out the score of each fielder based on the following formula: double play gets the fielder 2 points, pure out is 1 point, the sac if 6/10 of a point, hit is 1/4 of a point, and an error is 0 points. But I'll get to that.

As I said earlier, sacrificing is an article of faith for small ballers. The evidence runs against them. Check out this run expectancy information I got from The Last Nine Innings:

Run Expectancy:
Runner on 1st, No Out: .9227
Runner on 2nd, One Out: .7026

This is the classic strategy of the team that gets a runner on first with one out late in the game and wants to score the run. Run expectancy suggests that playing for the one run with a sac bunt to move the runner to second is a losing strategy: it lowers your probability of scoring runs.

– Or –

Runner on 2nd, No Out: 1.1629
Runner on 3rd, 1 Out: .9790

Same thing. But bunting is an article of faith, especially amongst NL clubs (which seem more conservative than their new-fangled American League counterparts), so infield defense is vital. I note that, according to TFB, the Phillies had the best corner infield (1B & 3B) in the MLB in 2005. (Yeah, they ranked 19th in bunt defense, I'm getting to that.) The Phillies led the MLB in Plus / Minus (plus score for a positive play, negative for a negative) at +57. Lest you think this was a fluke, I'd note that the Phils finished second in corner infield + / - in 2004 as well: +30, 4 behind the St. Louis Cards. (Although in 2003, they ranked 22nd at -13. Why? Well ... I'm getting to that too ...)

First Base. Ryan Howard did a very good job defensively at first base for the Phillies in 2005. Jim Thome wasn't signed for his glove and he routinely turned in below average-to-terrible performances at first in 2003 & 2004. Thome was -12 and -5 in '03 & '04 respectively, which ranked him 33rd and 25th. That's bad. Before he succumbed to injury in 2005, he was actually +4, but that was based on just 436 innings of work. Ryan played 706 innings and was +16, which ranked him second amongst MLB 1Bs. How did Ryan do fielding bunts?:

Bunts / Pure Outs / Sacrifices / Hits / Score (Rank)
Howard (2005): 7 / 0 / 5 / 2 / .500 (28th)
Thome (2004): 16 / 3 / 8 / 5 / .506 (18th)
Thome (2003): 27 / 8/ 12 / 7 / .628 (13th)

In other words, bad. Real bad. There is generally a trend developing with the Phillies and fielding. Their + / - stats are great, but their skill stats aren't. E.g., the Phils ranked #1 in overall + / -, and #1 with the middle infield (2B, SS), but they ranked 19th in converting double plays. Here the Phils also ranked 19th, despite leading the MLB in corner infield + / -.

My theory? The Phils have a solid nucleus of younger players and it shows. The Phillies are getting by defensively with speed: their fielders are able to get to the ball quickly and convert pop-flies into outs. But skill taks like the double play and bunt defense are coming a little tougher. Note that Thome did a decent job fielding bunts, despite an awful + / -. That's because Jim was an experienced veteran and while he lacked the speed to made plays, he executed well. Knowing how to handle the bunt is a skill Ryan will pick up.

Third Base. I'm always mildly amazed by how good David Bell is defensively and how terrible he is at the plate. David Bell led the MLB in + / - at third base at +24 and was third in 2004. Sure he was terrible at the plate,but his +24 probably saved the Phillies 10-12 runs in 2005. I've noted that his prowess with the glove doesn't erase his struggles at the plate, but it does mitigate them.

A little digression ... Like Bell, Travis Lee, Jim Thome's predecessor at first, was an awful offensive player, but a great glove: in 2003 he ranked fifth in plus / minus with the D-Rays, at +12 in 1,244 innings of work, with a .700 score on bunt defense. As I said,Travis wasn't a great hitter. Travis has a career slugging percentage of .411, light for a position you expect to get power from.

Here is how Bell did:

Bunts / Pure Outs / Sacrifices / Hits / Score (Rank)
Bell (2005): 27 / 5/ 10 /12 / .519 (11th)
Bell (2004): 25 / 7 / 6 / 11 / .534 (11th)
Bell (2003): 12 / 4 / 3 / 5 / .588 (8th)

Not to sound like a broken record, but I am going to reiterate my comments for Ryan Howard: speed is a talent the Phillies are getting by on. Here you see skill coming through a little more. Maybe David Bell's bunt stats aren't great, but they are good, and when you factor in his + / - scores, I think the picture of a very good defensive third baseman emerges. TFB's John Dewan even annoints David as the man who should have won the NL Gold Glove at Third in 2005.

Conclusion. The complete picture that emerges of the Phillies defense is that it is very speedy and very talented, but unskilled and still being tested. The Phils need to work on technical aspects of defense- turning the double play, defending the bunt, while maintaining their terrific team speed. Once they put it all together, this team will do great things for its pitching staff.

From Yesterday: It stinks that J.Roll's hit streak is over, but it is more disturbing that the Phils are 0-3. Monday: I preview the big Braves-Phillies series.

I read somewhere (I can't remember where now) that bunting a runner over to second with no outs decreases your overall run expectancy but increases the probability that you'll get a least one run. So in the case of needing one run in the bottom of the ninth to win a game, it might worthwhile.

Again, I don't remember the source of this, but it seems plausible.
I think you're right---your "average runs" will drop after the bunt because you decrease the likelihood of a mult-run inning.

However, if you just need ONE RUN, then a sac bunt in either of the scenarios above will increase the odds (on average) of that occurring. Likewise, don't remember where I saw that, only that I remember it.
I suspect you are correct, the sac bunt at the bottom of the ninth to get that one run in scoring position is a good play. If you can find documentation, I'd love to see whatever else they have to say...
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