I bunted a lot in Little League 'cuz I wasn't very good (18 Game Capsule #4)

Leading off the tenth inning on June 19, Willie Harris doubled. This being, obviously, a tie game, frequent observers of the Reds knew what was coming next, in strategy if not execution. Zack Cozart bunted and the lead runner was extinguished at third.

I don't have the tools or research capacity to detail this appropriately, but I know I've seen at least 3 or 4 times so far this year where the Reds lead off a late inning with a two-base hit, followed by a sacrifice bunt that didn't work. One begins to suspect that the opposing manager reacts to the lead-off double with a sigh of relief.

There is certainly a simple and understandable logic to this strategy. One run is needed late in a game and the double allows a run to score without hitting safely again. Anyone can make outs, making the bunt and fly ball strategy appear to be more of a guarantee than it really is.

I know there are sabermetric studies which have quantified with some granular precision the negative value triggered by the sacrifice bunt, but: 1) I haven't read ‘em; 2) I'm not going to; 3) I'm going to replicate them anyway with fake numbers. Red Reporter: come for the officially approved photographs, stay for the made-up analysis!

Thought exercise #1: through the quick-and-dirty number lens. There's a man on second with no one out. What is the likelihood that at least one run scores without bunting?

  • Most hits will score a runner from second (let's say 80% of all hits).
  • A hit that doesn't score a runner from second leaves the team in a equal or better position as the sacrifice bunt if it comes with 0 or 1 outs.
  • Some outs do the job of a sacrifice bunt anyway (productive outs!), and we'll say 10% of outs move the runner.
  • There are also non-contact ways of moving the runner (stolen base, passed ball, balk, etc.), but we'll ignore those for now.

Again, I'm making up these numbers, but let's walk through the two successive batters after a lead-off double under two different scenarios.

Other guesstimated assumptions:

  • The average hit rate is 26%
  • 10% of at-bats would advance a runner from 2nd to 3rd via an out
  • 25% of at-bats would score a runner from 3rd via an out.

Scenario 1:

  • The opening batter doubles.
  • The next batter either gets a hit (26%) or doesn't (74%). 80% of the hits score the run, 20% of the hits and 10% of the non-hits advance the runner to 3rd base.
  • This means that 20.8% of the time, the runner has already scored by the time the third batter steps to the plate.
  • In the 79.2% of the time the runner has not already scored, the third batter may either get a hit (26%) or drive the run in through an out (25%).
  • Add it all together, and there is a 41.1% chance that at least one runs scores via batters 2 and 3.

Scenario 2:

  • The opening batter doubles.
  • The next batter bunts.
  • If the sacrifice bunt is successful, the third batter can score him with a hit (26%) or a run-scoring out (25%), for a 51% overall success rate.
  • Therefore, to equal the 41.1% scoring chance in Scenario 1, the bunt has to have an 81% success rate (.411 divided by .51).

The numbers are certainly wrong, but they're always wrong anyways given that an average hitter never steps to the plate against an average pitcher in any real-life situations. The primary question is whether or not a successful bunt is an 80% proposition, and if that gamble is worth the likelihood of extra runs. (Attached to this central query is whether or not bunt success becomes even less likely when everyone in the park is anticipating it.) Is that a good bet? Again, this is largely emotional conjecture, but it sure seems like the bunt fails to move the runner along more than once out of every five tries. As it turned out, the Reds bunt on June 19 didn't work, but the run scored anyway due to other events. Of course, more than one run was actually needed, since two were scored in the inning's bottom half.

Thought exercise #2: through the press conference lens. There's a man on second with no one out. In the worst case scenario (the runner does not score), here are the two options leading to that failure and the related post-game questions...

Scenario 1 (manager did not bunt the runner over): "What was the thinking behind not bunting with Cozart in the 10th?"

Scenario 2 (manager did bunt the runner over, but didn't succeed): "(silence)"

Thought exercise #3: through the lens which blends in one extra piece of information. There's a man on second with no one out.

The manager quickly reviews the situation in his head. Tie game, and the coming batter exhibits good bat control. A quick glance to the bench coach who is reviewing the matchup numbers. The nerds up in the front office have supplied all of the coaching staff with run expectancy tables, but those spreadsheets never had to stare a Nolan Ryan fastball in the seams and live to tell about it. The bunter needs to be able to lay it down at a 80% rate for it to be a viable strategy? Hell, Cozie's coming up, and he can drop a bunt on half a dime 95 times out of 100. Plus, he's got guts and is a born winner. He may have a probability of success somewhere in the 110% neighborhood.

The batter is announced over the loudspeaker and the blaring walkup music fades out. One more glance onto the field. Heckuva hit by Willie Harris right there. Justification for believing in him since March. Let's get him home and we'll be celebrating with Bud Lights in 20 minutes. Suddenly a new thought occurs to the skipper. ‘Willie Effing Harris just laced a double. This pitcher may be more hittable than usual.'

A wink and a nod to the bench coach. The manager gives the ‘Swing Away' sign.

*****************************************

2012 Reds, Capsule 4

Overview:

Wins/Losses: 10 - 8

Strength of Schedule: .498 (6th most difficult in NL; 17th most difficult in ML) [Prev: .504, 6th most difficult in NL; 12th most difficult in ML]

RPI (ESPN): .512 (3rd best in NL; 10th best in ML)

[Prev: .517, 5th best in NL; 10th best in ML]

Cool Standings postseason odds: 64.7% [Prev: 61.3%]

Cool Standings division odds: 40.1% [Prev: 44.1%]

Offense:

  • .279/.348/.459 (AVG/OBP/SLG) for the team, compares to NL average of .253/.315/.402
  • The regulars, as defined by plate appearances: Hanigan, Votto, Phillips, Cozart, Frazier, Ludwick, Heisey, Bruce
  • Joey Votto has been coasting at a 1200 OPS level for two straight months now: .369/.488/.723 for the period, with 13 extra base hits and 12 RBI.
  • Everybody's happy when Brandon Phillips is hitting, and he paced the team with 16 RBI and 25 hits (932 OPS for the stretch). What's funny about BP this go-round is that he had just one walk and three strikeouts. The anti-Votto (who had 28 combined BB + K)? Either way, it's fun when the two are bopping.
  • Also needing specific call-out is Ryan Ludwick, who took advantage of the increased playing time opportunity created by injuries to Stubbs and Rolen by hitting .273/.349/.582. Frankly, he played well all the way around, but we're not out of the woods yet: these numbers are roughly what the team would consistently want out of a "left field masher", and instead they represent a dramatic one-time spike. If Ludwick does it again, perhaps we're in business.
  • There's an annual ritual in which Drew Stubbs misses some games due to injury or slump, and Chris Heisey throws down a terrible concurrent two-week stretch. This year's evidence: .242/.277/.339. Heisey now has but two dingers on the year and his BB/K ratio is 7 to 44. If there are any coaches on the team, please send Chris a map.
  • Leadoff hitter Zack Cozart got on base nearly 32% of the time (.269/.319/.358)!
  • Jay Bruce is a mystery sent by the heavens to confuse and confound. He had a nice walk rate (10 BB out of 76 PA), didn't strike out too much (13 times), was productive (11 runs scored, 13 driven in), but was overall pretty meh: .238/.342/.476. The culprit this stretch as a feeble .239 BABIP, which seems pretty head-scratchish given how hard Bru-hova can hit the ball. Bruce doesn't seem to be hitting more fly balls than usual, but maybe his fly balls are being hit with more loft? Research assistants, get on this. Chop chop.
  • Miguel Cairo is now hitting .140/.173/.240 on the year. Can't play defense, hits right handed, owed $600K or so on his contract. Gotsta be a better option out there somewhere.
  • Across players with at least 30 PA on the season, Todd Frazier ranks 2nd in on-base percentage, and 3rd in slugging percentage. Managing him, Rolen, Ludwick, and Heisey will require a deft touch over these next three months. Not the best roster construction we've ever seen.

Pitching:

  • Team ERA of 3.55, against league average of 4.22.
  • This stretch could have been disastrous with a capital D were it not for Johnny Cueto, resident ace. 4 starts, 4 wins, 5 runs allowed. More impressively, Cueto had been reading the saber-blogs, and upped his DIPS cred. 30.2 innings, 30 strikeouts, 3 walks, 0 dongers. Your move, nay-sayers.
  • On the flip side of the rotation was Bronson Arroyo, who allowed six home runs in 17 innings.
  • Starter ERAs bettered the pen, 3.44 to 3.86.
  • To that point, remember when Aroldis Chapman hadn't given up a run? That was awesome. Making up for lost time, Chappy surrendered 8 runs in 7.1 innings, with 9 hits (including 3 improbabombs), leading to 4 recorded losses in 8 appearances.
  • After two periods of unscathed pitching, Logan Ondrusek has posted ERAs of 7.01 and 6.75 over the last two. May be time for an elbow injury and a JJ Hoover recall.
  • Mike Leake was neither ace nor bum, but I like the 20-to-3 K/BB story.
  • To that point, despite missing a bunch of games where pitchers hit for themselves, the Reds staff struck out 4 times as many batters as they walked for the period. League average is 2.4 K/BB.
  • Team DER took a big jump forward, moving from .692 to .700 (YTD). Without Stubbs and Rolen, natch.

The next 18:

  • 7 games at home, 11 on the road
  • 5 of the 18 against divisional opponents
  • 7 of the 18 against 2011 playoff teams
  • A west cost road trip
  • .496 average winning percentage (2012) for the teams in the next 18 games.
  • A game literally consisting of nothing but stars
  • To win 90 games, generally a decent target for NL Central teams hoping to play in the postseason, the Reds just have to win 10 out of every 18. Which they're on pace to do, and exactly did in this last stretch. But oh, what a wasted opportunity. 14 of the 18 could have easily been theirs. F bomb. These next 18, which include Dodgers, Giants, and Redbirds, will not be easy, despite the sub-500 average shown two bullets prior. To win 10 here will be no small feat and the team will have earned its mid-summer break. If they don't, there's still lots of season to go, but wouldn't it be nice to have pocketed a few more gimmes...
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