The American League East was a crucible yesterday for arguments both for and against the bunt. In games between the Yankees and Blue Jays as well as the Rays and Rangers, the use, or lack, of a bunt either paid handsome dividends or proved costly, both in its successful implementation and failed execution.
With the Rays already leading 3-0 in the top of the second, B.J. Upton strolled to the plate with one out and runners and first and third. Considering the strength of the Rays pitching staff, which has allowed more than four runs in only six of the team’s last 40 games, plating an extra run probably seemed like the ball game. Apparently, that’s what Joe Maddon was thinking because he had B.J. Upton, who has slugged nearly .600 in his last 20 games, attempt a safety squeeze. Luckily for the Rays, the bunt was unsuccessful because two pitches later the centerfielder deposited a Matt Harrison offering deep into the left field stands. Was that a better outcome for the Rays? After the game, Upton put it best. “Definitely”, he simply stated when asked about the turn of events.
Earlier in the day at Yankee Stadium, the Blue Jays had a similar twist of fate when Yunel Escobar squared around to bunt on the first four pitches of his sixth inning at bat against CC Sabathia. Whether or not the short stop actually intended to sacrifice, on the fifth pitch, he gave the Blue Jays a 5-4 lead by homering. The two run blast was just part of a 4-5 day by Escobar in which he drove in a career high five runs. Once again, it was a good thing for Toronto that Escobar was unsuccessful in his attempt to sacrifice.
If every failed bunt attempt ended up with a long ball, the Yankees would have taken a lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. With no outs and Russell Martin representing the tying run on second base, Ichiro Suzuki missed on two attempts to lay down a bunt. However, instead of going deep after failing to sacrifice, he wound up striking out. It was the second consecutive at bat in which the left fielder was unable to advance a runner from second with no outs, and in each instance the Yankees failed to score.
Just like every failed bunt doesn’t guarantee a home run, every sacrifice isn’t a bad strategy. The Blue Jays proved that in the eighth inning when Jeff Mathis laid down a perfect squeeze, which, at the time, plated a very important insurance run. Granted, John Farrell could have played for a bigger inning by letting Mathis swing the bat, but the catcher’s career OPS of .571 likely factored into the decision to bunt.
When faced with a similar situation in the fourth inning, Joe Girardi took a different tact. At the time, the Yankees were looking to build on their 4-3 lead when backup catcher Chris Stewart came to the plate with runners on second and third and no outs. Like his counterpart Mathis, Stewart sported a similar career OPS of .581, but Girard let him swing away. The result was a pop out. Would Stewart have executed the squeeze if called upon? The catcher has six sacrifices in limited playing time over the past two seasons, but regardless, the outcome couldn’t have been much worse. Because the Yankees failed to score when Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano struck out with the bases loaded, the omission became glaring, but in retrospect, the fourth inning was Girardi’s chance to impact the game just like Farrell did in the eighth.
There are run expectancy and win probability matrices that can help determine whether or not a sacrifice bunt is a wise strategy. However, such an analysis is really nothing more than a conceptual generalization. When determining whether or not to bunt, context is vital. As Maddon, Girardi, and Farrell learned yesterday, not all sacrifice situations are created equal, and sometimes, the best strategy is the backup plan.