A bear market for batters

MLB batters don’t make contact with the ball as much as they used to, making for a game that emphasizes strikeouts and walks instead of hits and defense.

The long-term decline in contact rate ((AB-K)/AB) has accompanied a trend toward fewer home runs, fewer runs scores and lower batting averages. Contact rates have been steadily falling since they reached a peak in 1981 unseen since 1956.

Many fans, myself included, would prefer a game with more balls put in play, but baseball has changed in the statistically oriented, post-steroids era. Batters understand the value of a walk, and they’re not afraid to strike out, setting K records in nine straight seasons.

When will this pattern end, leading to more contact and more run scoring? There’s no way of knowing.

Ordinary average bunts

Runner on first, no outs. The table is set for a mistake.

Managers often see this situation as a great opportunity to bunt the runner over, but the numbers show they’re giving away runs and wins even when the sacrifice is executed perfectly.

By giving up an out for a base, teams lose more than they gain. Everyday, run-of-the-mill bunts cost teams in expected run scoring and the probability that they will win.

The most common bunt can be the most damaging type of sacrifice over the long run. The median win probability added of all 2,114 sacrifice bunt attempts in 2013 was -0.02, according to an analysis of data from the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index. That means teams’ odds of winning drops by 2 percentage points when they lay down a bunt.

  • The Cardinals and Diamondbacks were tied at 9 in the top of the 13th inning on April 3, 2013, when Matt Carpenter bunted over Jon Jay to second. The Cardinals went from having a runner on first with no outs to having a runner on second with one out, and their win probability declined by -0.02. Jay never scored, and the Cardinals lost 10-9.
  • With runners on first and second, no outs and trailing 5-3 on April 15, 2013, Luis Cruz of the Dodgers bunted the runners over and was thrown out at first. The Dodgers WPA dipped -0.02, and the Padres went on to win, 6-3.
  • Denard Span bunted over two Nationals’ players to second and third in an effort to come back from a 4-2 deficit. Again, the bunt was successful, but the Nationals lost -0.02 in WPA and lost to the Cardinals 4-3 on Sept. 23, 2013.

If these examples seem similar, that’s because they are.

The same story repeats itself over and over. Each time, teams lose fractions of a win when they bunt runners over.

Bunts may be worthwhile when the pitcher is batting or when a position player is fast enough to bunt for a hit.

But in most other situations, teams shouldn’t bother with the bunt. They’re killing themselves with smallball.

Bunts do more harm than good for most teams

Most of baseball’s managers harmed their teams when ordering non-pitchers to lay down bunts last season.

Only 13 of 30 Major League Baseball managers improved their teams’ chances of winning with sacrifice bunt attempts, according to an analysis of information from the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index.

The other 17 managers would have been better off letting their batters swing away.

In the 2013 season, the managers and teams that were best at bunting — both the decision to try a bunt and the execution of a bunt attempt — were Terry Francona of the Indians, Joe Girardi of the Yankees and Ron Roenicke of the Brewers. The managers who made the worst bunting decisions were John Gibbons of the Blue Jays, Mike Redmond of the Marlins and Walt Weiss of the Rockies.

The most profitable bunts occurred when the batter reached base, either by beating out the throw or when the defensive team committed an error. Bunts also made a positive difference in win probability when they advanced runners from first and second to second and third with no outs.

For example, Juan Centeno substantially improved the Mets’ chances of winning on Sept. 29, 2013, when he bunted in front of home with a runner on first and no outs in the bottom of the 8th. The runner, Juan Lagares, came all the way around to score, tying the game at 2. The Mets went on to defeat the Brewers 3-2. With a win probability added of 0.37, that play had the highest WPA of any sacrifice bunt attempt in the 2013 season.

The least useful bunt attempt happened when the Marlins’ Rob Brantley hit a popup to third that turned into a double play at first when Donovan Solano was caught off the bag. That play significantly reduced the Marlins’ chances of winning with a WPA of -0.27, and one strikeout by Craig Kimbrel later, the Braves notched a 3-2 victory on April 9, 2013.

This study excluded pitchers in order to compare National League and American League teams.

Sacrifice bunt attempts are one of the more easily measurable decisions that managers make, but of course this ranking shouldn’t be used to solely determine whether one manager is better than another. Many other managerial decisions include bullpen management, lineup configuration, intentional walks, stolen bases, training, scouting, preparation and intangibles, such as player motivation.

There was a low to moderate correlation between the number of sacrifice bunt attempts and their win probability added. The correlation was about 0.38.

Saving the best for never

When you have a problem and you know how to fix it, the solution should be obvious. Unfortunately, it’s not apparent to the Atlanta Braves and many other baseball teams.

The Braves have lost six in a row, but their best relief pitcher, Craig Kimbrel, hasn’t thrown the ball once during that stretch. This is a common managerial strategy by manager Fredi Gonzalez and other big league managers, and there’s no good reason for it.

A team’s best relief pitcher should pitch in the most important situations. Preserving closers for save situations often doesn’t make any sense because those situations may never come. You have to get there first.

How do we know when the “closer” should get in the game, if not necessarily the 9th inning? The answer is to use the Leverage Index, which is a table that shows how important each game situation is. The Leverage Index comes from “The Book,” by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin.

High leverage situations occur when the game hangs in the balance. That’s when you want your most effective reliever in the game. Closers typically appear in situations with leverage of about 2.

In Saturday’s game, that situation came when the game was tied 4-4 in the top of the sixth and there was a runner on third base with one out. The chart shows the leverage of that situation was 2.0, higher than at another other point in the game, but Kris Medlen was left in there to face Chad Tracy, who hit a double to put the Nationals ahead 5-4 on their way to an 8-4 victory. (The website Fangraphs lists the LI in that situation at 2.55, presumably based on a more detailed calculation than what’s provided in the chart. Under both the chart in “The Book” and on Fangraphs, that situation had the highest LI in the game.)

In Friday’s game, the Braves trailed 3-4 in the top of the 7th with the bases loaded and two outs, but starting pitcher Tim Hudson was allowed to continue pitching even though he had already thrown 105 pitches. Three pitches later, Ryan Zimmerman hit a bases-clearing double and only then was Hudson pulled from the game. In that situation, the game leverage was 3.1.

The trend also can be seen in the Braves’ previous losses.

When Medlen gave up a grand slam to the Reds on Thursday, the leverage index was about 4.0 when the bases were loaded in the bottom of the sixth with one out and the Braves led 2-1.

Again with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth and one out on Wednesday and the Braves ahead 1-0, Tommy Hanson was left in to pitch to Jay Bruce, who tied the game with a fielder’s choice. That LI was about 3.3.

On Tuesday, during the Braves 9-2 loss, there weren’t many high-leverage situations because the Reds took an early lead and then built on it. The 4-1 loss on Monday was also a low-leverage game–it game was tied at 1-1 in the second, and then Mike Minor gave up three consecutive solo home runs in the fourth.

So out of the last six games, the Braves had four high-leverage late inning situations where Kimbrel could have been used.

Instead, inferior pitchers were put in the game, Kimbrel rode the bench, and the Braves found themselves in fourth place.