Bunts, outs and strategy

Of all the offensive strategies in the game of fastpitch softball, none is more time-honored than using the bunt as a means of advancing a runner into scoring position. In fact, you could say that offensive strategy #1 goes like this: get your leadoff hitter on base, then have the next hitter sacrifice bunt her over to second.
 
That’s the way it’s always been. And for many that’s the way it continues to be. Yet there is a question as to whether it really makes sense to automatically lay down the bunt when you get a runner on base with no outs, no matter the quality of the opposing team or where you are in the lineup. 

Major League Baseball once did a study on the chances of scoring a runner from first base with no outs v. from second base with one out. It came from the study of 50 years worth of statistics. (MLB and the people who follow it intensely love to make with the stats.) According to Cindy Bristow’s must-have book Softball Strategies, Coverages, Signals & Charts, the chances of a runner scoring from first with no outs are 43%. The chances of scoring that same runner from second with one out are 45%. Is it really worth giving up an out automatically to increase your chances of scoring by 2%? It’s a good strategy sometimes — like when you’re in a tight, low-scoring game where you need to play for one run, when your team’s hitters are being dominated by the other team’s pitcher, or  you’re in the part of your lineup where rallies go to die.

But it may not be such a good idea when you’re early in the game and you know you can hit the opponent’s pitcher. Why not play for a big inning by letting hitter #2 swing away? She may advance the runner a lot further than second, and you still have all three outs left to try to get her home. Even if she only gets to second, the chances of scoring go up to 60% with no outs. If she makes it to third, you stand a 70% chance of getting her in. I’d say 70% looks a lot better than 45% — and 60 feet away looks better than 120 feet. After all, from third all you need is a wild pitch to score.

I’ve even seen some teams waste two outs trying to bunt a runner to third. Let’s look at the stats there. Again, with a runner on first and no outs your chances of scoring that runner are 43%. If you expend an out to bunt her to second and then another to bunt her to third, your situation is two outs and a runner on third. Your chances of scoring now have actually gone down. Statistically, you have a 32% chance of scoring — 11% less than when you started. How does that make sense? Unless your team is so horrible at swinging the bat that they have no chance of putting the ball in play, you are better off trying to hit that runner around and in.

If you follow softball 101 and bunt her to second, you’re still better off swinging the bat and using a hit to advance her to third. The chances of scoring a runner from third with one out are 54%. That’s a slight advantage over the “house” for you gamblers. Does it really make sense to give up 22% to get that runner to third? I don’t think so. Half of 54% is 27%, so you’re basically cutting your chances of scoring almost in half by sac bunting the runner to third. Who in their right minds wants to cut their chances of scoring in half? Yes, you might get lucky with a wild pitch now and then. But the higher a level you play, the less likely you are to get that luck. In the meantime, you’ve given up a lot of outs — and potential runs — for no reason.

Bunting is a great technique for advancing runners when used intelligently. I’ve done it myself lots of times. But it can also be a liability. Do the math. Make your bunts more strategic and you’ll generate a lot more offense.

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