To bunt or not to bunt, it doesn’t matter much: Between Innings

Maybe Trevor Bauer just needs to be matched up against aces all the time. He was matched up with Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 13, which saw him give up just two runs in one out short of six innings. On Wednesday, Yu Darvish took the mound for the Texas Rangers, and Bauer proved himself up to the task again. Like Mike Clevinger before him, Bauer allowed just one run. He also only issued one walk in over six innings of work. The Cleveland Indians used his performance to build a 5-1 lead that they clung onto despite a small Ranger rally in the last frame, 5-3.

To bunt or not to bunt
The Indians, once again, left the game feeling more runs could have been scored. The team went a not terrible 6-for-17 with runners in scoring position, which shows they had men sitting with RISP throughout the night.

One of the bigger debate topics that popped up during the game was that twice (in the seventh and eighth innings) the Tribe bunted with runners on first and second with no one out.

Here is a quantitative look at how run scoring is affected by bunting. The numbers were collated between 1977 and 1992, and those presented below are done for the first and eighth positions in the lineup.

AL (1977-1992)

Jason Kipnis executed his bunt successfully by pushing it halfway down the third base line. In fact, with a third baseman other than Adrian Beltre, he might have been able to leg it out as an infield hit. Given Kipnis’ complete struggles in 2017 with his .239/.294/.407 slash, there is even an argument that it is among his better chances at reaching base safely.

Regardless, and giving him the benefit of the doubt of being an average lead-off hitter (he’s not), the Indians run expectancy that inning went from 1.614 to 1.456 by advancing the runners to second and third, while sacrificing the out. For a difference of 0.158 runs.

Zimmer botched his sacrifice attempt with an assist from Lonnie Chisenhall. The ball died directly in front of home plate giving catcher Jonathan Lucroy an easy time to get to it. With Chisenhall getting a late jump, Lucroy was able to throw to third to ruin the sacrifice attempt.

The run expectancy in the inning dropped from 1.431 to .804 due to the play. Over half a run is a huge factor. There was a decent chance for two runs before the out, but after it, the Indians were not even fully expected to score one. They did not plate any insurance runs after the play.

Had Zimmer laid down the sacrifice though, the final expected runs would have only dropped to 1.322. A mere 0.109 difference.

Bunting lowered the overall expected runs to be scored in each inning. Hitting away, therefore, is the better overall play on average. When the player is batting .291 with a .366 on base percentage (Zimmer), then that shouldn’t even be a decision. Hit the ball. But, when a hitter is struggling as much as Kipnis is at the plate, the difference is low enough that it is understandable for a good bunter to utilize it as an option at times.

There is a bigger issue at play here that is worse for holding down runs. Why is a player under .300 on base percentage leading off the game? There is absolutely no reason this lineup construction makes sense.

Beyond the box score did a study on optimizing the batting order and this is what they had found.

#1, #4, #2, #5, #3, #6, #7, #8, #9

You want your best three hitters to hit in the #1, #4, and #2 spots. Distribute them so OBP is higher in the order and SLG is lower. Then place your fourth and fifth best hitters, with the #5 spot usually seeing the better hitter, unless he’s a high-homerun guy. Then place your four remaining hitters in decreasing order of overall hitting ability, with basestealers ahead of singles hitters. Finally, stop talking like the lineup is a make-or-break decision.

Again there are minimal overall effects towards manufacturing a lineup. But, the biggest factor is the players who get the most plate appearances. Giving the most to your eighth best hitter hurts the ability to score runs far more than bunting runners over in the seventh inning.

Given the above (and additional instructions on the link), then the optimum lineup for the Indians would be:

Jose Ramirez
Francisco Lindor
Michael Brantley
Edwin Encarnacion
Lonnie Chisenhall
Bradley Zimmer
Carlos Santana
Jason Kipnis
Roberto Perez (or Yan Gomes)

D-Fence clap, clap

Zimmer helped make up for his non-sacrifice by making a Statcast 4-star catch covering almost 75 feet. He made it look almost routine. For those who remember Devon White, Zimmer has some shades of him gliding through center field (he’s quite not near that level yet overall- just for this play).

Game recognize game. Future Hall of Fame third-baseman Adrian Beltre drills a shot down the line. Ramirez nabs it, turns and fires a one-hopper to first to record the out. Beltre-esque play there.