Not So Sweet Surrender

“A good sacrifice is one that is not necessarily sound but leaves your opponent dazed and confused.” – English chess prodigy Nigel Short

“Sure, I screwed up that sacrifice bunt, but look at it this way. I’m a better bunter than a billion Chinese. Those poor suckers can’t bunt at all.”John Lowenstein, former Baltimore Orioles outfielder

As I perused the various sections in The Bill James Handbook 2006, I came across the “Managers Record” chapter towards the back of the book. There each 2005 manager is listed along with a variety of statistics spanning his entire career that serve to give you a profile of his tendencies. These include number of lineups used, percentage of platoon advantage in his lineups, pinch hitters, pinch runners, defensive substitutions, quick and slow hooks, long outings, number of relievers used, stolen base attempts, sacrifice attempts, intentional walks and pitchouts.

There’s some very interesting information embedded in these tables, including the fact that Bobby Cox of Atlanta and Bob Melvin of the Diamondbacks led the majors in starting players with the platoon advantage at 69% and 68% respectively, while Jack McKeon and Alan Trammell did so only 43% and 49% of the time.

I also noticed that Dusty Baker led the world in pitchouts with 70 (the average was about 23), while Frank Robinson of the Nationals called for only four. What’s even more interesting is that the difference apparently had no effect on the running game; the Cubs caught 40 of 90 (31%) would-be base stealers while the Nats caught 41 of 76 (35%). That’s probably not much consolation to the Dodgers, however, who nabbed just 34 of 130 base stealers (21%) and called for just 17 pitchouts.

Robinson though wouldn’t be outdone in his penchant for giving up outs and putting runners on for free. He called for 115 sacrifices and 77 intentional walks, both of which led the majors.

All of which leads me to the main topic of this article.

What really caught my eye in the Manager’s Record were the sacrifice attempts called for by each manager, a category added in 2006. Last May on my blog I speculated a little on how often sacrifice attempts were successful in an attempt to provide some context to this comment Bill James made in an interview on Baseball Digest Daily:

“…the general argument against the bunt seems unpersuasive to me. The essential argument against the bunt is that the number of expected runs scored after a bunt attempt goes down in almost all situations when a bunt is used, and the expectation of scoring one run goes up only in a few situations.

But this argument is unpersuasive to me, because it assumes that there are two possible outcomes of a bunt: a ‘successful’ bunt, which trades a base for and out, and an “unsuccessful” bunt, which involves an out with no gain. In reality, there are about a dozen fairly common outcomes of a bunt attempt. The most common of those is a foul ball, but others include a base hit, a fielder’s choice/all safe, a pop out, a pop out into a double play, an error on the third baseman and a hit plus an error on the third baseman, or the second baseman if you’re talking about a drag bunt.”

In that quote James calls into question the standard argument used against the bunt based on run expectancy and scoring probability tables. For those who aren’t familiar with that argument it goes a little like this.

Using play-by-play data one can calculate on average how often and how many runs were scored after each of the 24 possible base/out combinations. For example, in the period 1999-2002 the run expectancy for a team with a runner on first and nobody out was 0.953 runs with a scoring probability of 0.437. In other words teams averaged about a run once this situation obtained with a 44% chance of scoring one or more runs. The entire scoring probability table is shown below.

Base/Out   0      1      2
Empty    .293   .173   .077
1st      .437   .283   .136
2nd      .632   .406   .223
3rd      .864   .662   .263
1st/2nd  .641   .426   .231
1st/3rd  .876   .655   .285
2nd/3rd  .856   .695   .276
Loaded   .872   .670   .325

Using a simple formula that Pete Palmer and John Thorn introduced in The Hidden Game of Baseball one can then calculate the break-even percentage for a particular strategy. That formula is:

Break Even % = (Pv – Fv) / (Sv – Fv)

where Pv = Present Value, Fv = Failure Value, and Sv = Success Value.

In the case of the sacrifice with a runner on first and nobody out, the scoring probabilities are Pv = .437, Fv = .283 (runner on first and one out) and Sv = .406 (runner on second and one out). When you do the math you get a break-even percentage in excess of one (actually 1.5). When the result is greater than one it means that even with a success rate of 100% a sacrifice attempt costs you more in terms of scoring probability than you gain. The same calculation can be applied to run expectancy to determine when a team should sacrifice when the objective is to maximize the number of runs they score.

Once all of these calculations are done (and if you’d rather than do them by hand you can download my strategy application) it turns out that for the 1999-2002 period a sacrifice is worth the risk only in the following situations:

  • you need to score a single run
  • there are runners on first and second
  • there is nobody out
  • the odds of being successful are greater than 79.9%
  • and when…

  • you need to score a single run
  • there is a runner on second
  • there is nobody out
  • the odds of being successful are greater than 92.1%
  • Of course the above is based on the assumption that an average hitter is at the plate. Pitchers are the most often called upon to sacrifice, and they are anything but average. We can adjust for that as well by adjusting the probability of success based on an average pitcher’s performance. When that is done the following situations make a sacrifice attractive:

    Base    Out  Score  Maximize
    1st      0   .679    No
    1st      1   .820    No
    1st/2nd  0   .359  .621
    2nd      0   .563  .939
    

    As you’ll notice there are still a minority of situations where sacrifices appear to make sense. However, James contends that sacrifice attempts are more valuable than you would think at first glance because they have ancillary affects other than simply giving up an out.

    And that brings me back to the sacrifices-attempted column in The Handbook.

    The nice guys at Baseball Info Solutions tell me that in calculating the number of sacrifices attempted they use the following definition:

  • Batter is not a pitcher: Bunt in play and runners on first and/or second and third empty with nobody out
  • Batter is a pitcher: Bunt in play and runners on first and/or second and fewer than two outs
  • As you might guess, and as James noted, this definition doesn’t cover the full gamut of sacrifice attempts, because this calculation is based on play-by-play results and not observation. Notably this does not include the situation when the batter struck out while attempting to sacrifice, nor does it include sacrifice attempts with runners on third (suicide and safety squeezes) or sacrifice attempts by position players when there are fewer than two outs (something we regrettably saw Willy Taveras do multiple times during the postseason).

    So I decided to take another crack at this and try and determine just how often sacrifice attempts are successful and how this jives with the run expectancy and scoring probability break-even points.

    So How Many Sacrifice Attempts Were There?

    To do so I went through the play by play data for 2005 and created my own set of plays that could reasonably be termed sacrifice attempts. These included:

  • Non-pitcher hitting who lays down a bunt (grounder or pop up) with runners on base with nobody out. (This happened 1,290 times in 2005.)
  • A pitcher who lays down a bunt with runners on base and fewer than two outs. (This happened 841 times in 2005)
  • Any hitter who strikes out attempting to bunt with runners on base and fewer than two outs. (This happened 171 times, 142 times with pitchers.)
  • All the rest of the successful sacrifice attempts, of which there were 53, with 31 of them being suicide or safety squeezes
  • As you can see, this is a more liberal definition than that used by The Handbook, but it’s one I think more accurately captures the actual number of attempted sacrifices. There are still holes however, as it fails to account for bunt attempts by non-pitchers with one out where a sacrifice was not credited by the official scorer. There were 81 such occurrences with the following outcomes:

    Single             39
    Double Play         5
    Force out          11
    Ground out         18
    Pop out:            6
    Batter interference 2
    

    With these it’s difficult to make a reasonable assumption as to whether or not a sacrifice was attempted, so I’ve chosen to leave them out. There are also likely some non-sacrifice attempts lumped into the first category above, so my hope is that these will have the effect of canceling some of those out.

    When you total it all up that means there were 2,355 sacrifice attempts in the majors in 2005 (The Handbook total was 2,138), which, broken down by team looks like this:

    Team           SacA
    WAS             132
    COL             126
    FLO             125
    SFN             118
    HOU             113
    SLN             112
    ATL             108
    MIL             108
    ARI             101
    SDN             101
    CHN              98
    NYN              96
    PHI              93
    PIT              90
    LAN              86
    CIN              80
    CHA              74
    SEA              61
    KCA              60
    ANA              60
    MIN              60
    DET              57
    BAL              54
    CLE              54
    TBA              51
    NYA              44
    TOR              30
    OAK              30
    BOS              22
    TEX              11
    

    I mentioned at the beginning of this article that Frank Robinson’s Nats attempted 115 sacrifices according to The Handbook. The total here is 17 higher since my criteria is a bit more liberal. Can you believe that Buck Showalter called for just 11 sacrifices?

    The players who were called on to sacrifice most often were:

    Name            SacA
    Omar Vizquel     25
    Chris Carpenter  20
    Coco Crisp       19
    Brandon Webb     19
    Luis Castillo    19
    Livan Hernandez  18
    Juan Pierre      17
    Neifi Perez      17
    Willy Taveras    17
    Andy Pettitte    17
    AJ Burnett       16
    Nook Logan       16
    Ramon Ortiz      15
    Royce Clayton    15
    Jack Wilson      15
    Jamey Carroll    15
    John Smoltz      15
    

    Why did I have a feeling that Neifi Perez would be high on the list? Incidentally, in his 17 attempts Perez executed 12 times, struck out once, popped out three times and grounded into a force out once.

    And when broken down by base/out situation the totals for the majors look like this.

    Base/Out    0     Pct       1    Pct
    1st      1001   0.425     321   0.136
    2nd       415   0.176       5   0.002
    3rd         0   0.000      22   0.009
    1st/2nd   404   0.172     105   0.045
    1st/3rd    21   0.009      51   0.022
    2nd/3rd     1   0.000       3   0.001
    Loaded      0   0.000       6   0.003
             1842   0.782     513   0.218
    

    As you would expect, there were many more attempts with nobody out than with one out, and the most attempts were with a runner on first and no outs.

    How Successful Were They?

    Now that we’ve got a data set with which to work we can look at how often sacrifices were successful.

    As a first pass we can count those sacrifice attempts as successful if the sacrifice was successfully executed or if no outs were recorded on the play by the defense. In other words, this includes all the attempts where the sacrifice was put down successfully plus all those attempts where the batter reached safely because of an error, fielder’s choice or beating out the bunt for a single. This then encompasses most of the outcomes that James had envisioned.

    When we use those two criteria we find that sacrifices were successful 76.2% of the time in 2005. The teams ranked by success rate were:

    Team     SacA    Succ     Pct
    KCA        60      50   83.3%
    SEA        61      50   82.0%
    BOS        22      18   81.8%
    TEX        11       9   81.8%
    ANA        60      49   81.7%
    BAL        54      44   81.5%
    CLE        54      44   81.5%
    HOU       113      92   81.4%
    DET        57      46   80.7%
    SFN       118      95   80.5%
    TBA        51      41   80.4%
    NYA        44      35   79.5%
    MIN        60      47   78.3%
    TOR        30      23   76.7%
    OAK        30      23   76.7%
    CIN        80      61   76.3%
    FLO       125      95   76.0%
    SLN       112      85   75.9%
    COL       126      95   75.4%
    PHI        93      70   75.3%
    ATL       108      81   75.0%
    ARI       101      75   74.3%
    MIL       108      80   74.1%
    NYN        96      71   74.0%
    WAS       132      96   72.7%
    CHN        98      71   72.4%
    SDN       101      73   72.3%
    LAN        86      62   72.1%
    PIT        90      63   70.0%
    CHA        74      50   67.6%
    

    So despite getting a lot of practice, the Nationals were not stellar at giving themselves up. And despite being in the American League where the success rates are higher (since position players apparently are better bunters than pitchers), the World Champions also had some problems, although it didn’t really hurt them since they relied much more on the home run, on which they scored 42.4% of their runs, good for fourth in the majors.

    Incidentally, I’ve always wondered what the success rate is when asking pitchers to bunt with two strikes. Well, in 2005 they were asked to bunt with two strikes 207 times and were successful (they didn’t strike out) just 65 times or 31%. Non-pitchers weren’t any more successful, however, and were 14 of 43 for 32%.

    We can then fill in each cell of the base/out matrix with the success rate that teams actually experienced in 2005 as follows:

    Base/Out       0       1
    1st        0.780   0.695
    2nd        0.882   0.800
    3rd         N/A    0.864
    1st/2nd    0.696   0.514
    1st/3rd    0.810   0.882
    2nd/3rd    0.000   0.667
    Loaded      N/A    0.333
    

    So what does this tell us? Well, when we compare this against the previous table that indicated when sacrifice attempts are generally worth it, we can see where the league beat the break-even percentage and therefore where teams generally are making good decisions. Those turn out to be (in bold in the previous table):

  • with a runner on first and nobody out (.780 versus .679)
  • with runners on first and second with nobody out (.696 versus .359 and .621)
  • with a runner on second and nobody out (.882 versus .563)
  • And of course squeeze plays are always a good bet when you need a single run since they’re often successful (over 86% of the time with a runner on third).

    The most interesting of these is the large difference between the break-even success rates with runners on first and second of .359 and second with nobody out of .563 and the actual success rate of .696 and .882 respectively. This may indicate that managers don’t risk attempting to move the runner to third even with a below-average bunter as often as they should, especially if that run means tying the game or going ahead.

    Now of course as discussed previously, these break-even percentages were based on a pitcher hitting, so the percentages would rise somewhat if we weighted them by the actual number of sacrifices attempted by pitchers versus position players. If we looked only at position players then there wouldn’t be any situations where the league as a whole would beat the break-even percentage.

    The Wisdom of Weaver

    In the end what this tells me is that Earl Weaver’s fourth and fifth laws as laid out in his book Weaver on Strategy: The Classic Work on the Art of Managing a Baseball Team, still makes a good deal of sense when applied in general. Those laws are:

  • Weaver’s Fourth Law: Your most precious possessions on offense are your 27 outs
  • Weaver’s Fifth Law: If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get
  • But as in most of life, although you may live by a few general principles there will always be times you have to adjust when the context demands. After all, even Earl Weaver asked John Lowenstein to bunt now and then.

    References & Resources

  • Weaver on Strategy: The Classic Work on the Art of Managing a Baseball Team by Earl Weaver and Terry Pluto
  • The Bill James Handbook 2006 by Bill James, Baseball Info Solutions
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