The sacrifice bunt is overrated

Just got done checking out another article over at Girls Fastpitch Softball. This one was on the sacrifice bunt and how hitters aren’t being taught to bunt anymore.

Now, I like Dave over there, even if he does get a bit long-winded, and most of the time I agree with what he has to say. I even agree with a lot of this article — particularly on the need to develop the short game all the way up and down the lineup. But I do have to say I disagree with his evaluation of the sac bunt v. bunting for a hit.

Personally, I think it is one of the most over-rated and over-used tactics in softball. It causes you to lose something with not all that much advantage in long run. The thing you’re losing is an out.

If you’re playing for a 1-0 win, or even a 2-1 win, runs themselves aren’t really the key. Opportunities to score runs are the keys. And the currency of the game is outs. Just ask Billy Beane, or anyone who has really looked at the stats.

In a seven inning game, you have 21 outs to work with. No more, no less. If your first runner gets on base in all seven innings and you sac bunt her over in all seven innings, you’ve just given up 1/3 of your precious outs to move that runner to second — assuming you are successful each time. Statistically, you have now increased your chances of scoring that runner by 2%. (IIRC, the difference in scoring a runner from first with no outs v. a runner from second with one out is 43% v. 45%.) That seems like a bad trade to me.

Let’s break it down into one inning. You sac bunt that runner over to second, and now have two outs left to get her home. Unless she’s fast enough to steal third, somehow you have to advance her to third with a base hit or another bunt. There aren’t always a lot of base hits in softball, so you may have to bunt her over again, especially against a dominant pitcher. That’s two outs. All it takes is a strikeout, a popup, a weak ground ball, or a towering fly ball that gets caught to lose that chance. Even with the base hit, a strikeout and a pop-up kill your inning.

If you bunt for a hit, though, you can have runners on first and second with no outs. Now, a sac bunt can move both runners up and you have two chances to score at least one run. Even a ground ball to the infield could mean a run with only one out if you’re aggressive.

The key, of course, is being able to bunt for a hit. And that’s where I do agree with Dave. It seems like that ability to get the bunt down when it’s needed is being lost. A top-level player should be able to sit back until the last moment, get into position, and bunt the top of the ball to get it down. If she’s out she’s out, but at least she made the attempt to preserve that out and put her team into a better position.

One of the most interesting examples of a sac bunt backfiring came in the 2005 World Cup championship game. It was USA v Japan. The USA had runners on first and second with no one out. Stacey Nuveman, their best power hitter, came to the plate. Stacey was the DH because of an ankle or foot injury which limited her mobility.

Coach Candrea gave her the sac bunt sign to everyone’s surprise, and she fouled the first one off. The sign came in again and this time she executed it perfectly. The trouble was, the third baseman committed to fielding it early and practically caught the ball off her bat. She got the ball, wheeled and fired to the SS covering third to get the lead runner. The SS then fired across the diamond to first, where they easily doubled up the hobbling Nuveman. So with their best power hitter at the plate, USA went from runners at first and second with no outs to a runner at second with two outs. Not a very good exchange in my book.

Rather than “playing it safe” by having the hitter give herself up, I’d say put more emphasis on successfully executing the surprise bunt and give yourself the opportunity to save an out. You may find you need that out by the time the game is over.

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