#Hurdled: Pittsburgh Pirates Sacrifice Bunt Attempts

April 15, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison bunts for an RBI against the San Francisco Giants during the eighth inning at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Jason O. Watson-US PRESSWIRE

#Hurdled is one of the most popular hashtags within the Pittsburgh Pirates Twitter community. If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, a hashtag is way to mark a keyword or topic on Twitter. When Pirates fans Tweet the hastag "#Hurdled", they are typically doing so sarcastically, expressing their opposition to some tactical decision made by manager Clint Hurdle.

Nothing leads to a flurry of #Hurdled Tweets like when a Pirates position player attempts a sacrifice bunt. Most Pirates fans are of the opinion that not only is the sacrifice bunt a bad tactical move in almost all situations (except with pitchers batting), but also that Hurdle uses the tactic far too often, or at a rate far higher than league average. In this post, I put the latter opinion to the test empirically. Then, I conclude with a few thoughts about the tactic itself, and invite all of you to join me in what I am sure will be lively and constructive debate in the comment section. (Hint: I'm evolving towards a more liberal position regarding its use.)

What I did

Using Play Index at BaseballReference.com, I calculated the rate at which National League teams have attempted sacrifice bunts in the following situations:

  1. Runner(s) on any base; high leverage (basically high-pressure, important moments of a game); less than two outs; non-pitcher plate appearances.
  2. Runner on first; any leverage; score within three runs either way; less than two outs; non-pitcher plate appearances.
  3. Runner on second; any leverage; score within three runs either way; less than two outs; non-pitcher plate appearances.

After compiling the 2012 data, I then looked at Clint Hurdle's use of the sacrifice bunt with the Colorado Rockies. I wanted to find out if Hurdle's (over)use of the tactic was a reaction to managing an offensively-challenged team, or if it is just the way he approaches managing baseball games.

High Leverage

The table below is pretty self-explanatory - "Plate App." are plate appearances in high leverage situations, as defined in condition number (1) above; "Sac. Att." are sacrifice bunt attempts; "Sac. Rate" is the rate of sacrifice bunt attempts in high leverage situations (i.e. .050 means that Pirates position players attempt a sacrifice bunt five percent of the time in these situations); "Runs" are the total number of runs scored in the inning after the sacrifice bunt attempt; "Avg RS" are the average runs scored in an inning after the bunt attempt.

Sacbunthighlevtab_medium

The graph below compares of the "Sac. Rate" of all National Leagues in 2012 (current as of Wednesday, May 30).

(Click to enlarge)

Sacbunthighlev_medium

The Pirates have attempted sacrifice bunts in high leverage situations more than any other team in the National League. About five percent of the time the Pirates find themselves in such situations, Clint Hurdle signals for a sacrifice bunt.

Runner on First

Sacbuntrunner1sttable_medium

Sacbuntrunner1st_medium

With a runner on first, less than two outs, the Pirates utilize the sacrifice bunt tactic well above National League and Major League average. They trail only the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League. The Pirates attempt a sacrifice bunt about eight percent of the time they have a runner on first, less than two outs, with the game within three runs either way.

Runner on Second

Sacbuntrunner2ndtable_medium

Sacbuntrunner2nd_medium

Again, the Pirates attempt a much higher rate of sacrifice bunts than National League and Major League average. They trail only the Cubs in the National League. With a runner on second, less than two outs, and the game within three runs, they attempt a sacrifice ten percent of the time.

Observations

Pirates fans' intuitions are correct: the Pirates do employ the sacrifice bunt tactic at a rate much higher than league average. Indeed, almost across the board, they attempt sacrifice bunts at a rate almost double that of MLB average. Conversely, the Braves and Diamondbacks both have consistently very low rates.

The next question is whether Clint Hurdle is employing this tactic because he is managing a team that is struggling to score runs; or has it always characterized his managing style. The fact that he managed in a high scoring environment like Coors Field is particularly intriguing.

Mile High #Hurdled (2003-2008)

Sacbuntcolorado_medium

We can see pretty clearly that, while he used the tactic less frequently than he has this year, Clint Hurdle has consistently called for more sacrifice bunt attempts than league average managers. What is most surprising to me is that the rate of sacrifice bunt attempts with runners on first was almost exactly the same in his six full seasons with Colorado as it's been this year with the Pirates.

Conclusion: The man likes his sacrifice bunts!

For Discussion

All of this leads us to the big question: Are Clint Hurdle's tactics fundamentally flawed when it comes to sacrificing?

As most of the readers of this blog know, there has been a dramatic shift in thinking when it comes to sacrifice bunt attempts (with position players) in the last 20 or so years. Conventional wisdom now holds that it is always a bad idea to give up outs for bases. Win expectancy models show that sacrifices are almost always a losing proposition; and run expectation tables show that the decrease in expected runs from an out, outweigh the benefits of an extra base.

However, what is very often overlooked is that bunts do not always lead to an exchange of an out for a base. Bunts can turn into hits, or runners can reach on an error (about 15 percent of plate appearances in which a sacrifice has been attempted, the batter reached base safely). No less of an authority than Bill James has noted that he "would certainly signal a bunt with a good bunter against a poor third baseman.' (quoted from "Baseball Between the Numbers", pg. 132). Moreover, in "The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball", highly-regarded baseball researcher Tom Tango writes,

Early in the game in a low run-scoring environment, it is correct to often sacrifice bunt with a runner on first and no outs. In an average run-scoring environment, you should occasionally sacrifice to keep the defense honest. (pg 253)

Over the past 50 games, the 2012 Pirates have played in one of the lowest run-scoring environments of the modern era. Moreover, in the last few years we have seen a decline in scoring generally. Whether this justifies Clint Hurdle's above average use of the tactic is a discussion worth having. Generally speaking, however, it is probably true that a much more nuanced view of the sacrifice bunt tactic is called for than is generally appreciated.

There is obviously much more discussion to be had on this topic. I invite all of you to join me in the "comments" section to carry on this conversation over the next few days.

What we have learned is that Clint Hurdle does call for sacrifice attempts more than average. What we do not know (with a certainty) is whether the Pirates are being #Hurdled as a consequence.

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