*Editor’s note; last night Jon Lester sac bunted three times!*
A very rare thing happened Monday night in the Cubs/Rockies back-and-forth battle that ended in a Kris Bryant walk-off homerun. I am not referring to the crazy win probability chart or the fact that both teams blew save opportunities. What I am referring to happened well before any walk-offs or save opps, as it happened in the bottom of the fourth inning. Kyle Hendricks (the Cubs starting pitcher) came up to bat with a runner on first and one out, and he placed a bunt down in front of home plate. Starlin Castro was able to advance to second as Hendricks was thrown out at first. Why would such a normal circumstance be referred to as rare? This became only the fourth time this season that a Cubs pitcher had performed a successful sacrifice bunt.
In the baseball world of 2015, “bunt” can be a four letter word. Many sabermatricians believe that bunting is just a waste of an out. There are theories that support this, of course, mainly based on the fact that you only get three outs an inning and using 33% of them just to advance a runner 90 feet (not scoring a run) is not worth it. As most statistics happen to be, this one is not exactly black and white. There are other people in the baseball world that still believe in the bunt. Ned Yost notoriously used the sacrifice bunt to take his Kansas City Royals all the way to Game 7 of the World Series last year, and Twitter made fun of him the whole way.
Joe Maddon is thought of to be on the other side of the spectrum as Yost. Maddon has embraced statistical analysis and has used it to success in his past with the Tampa Rays. With Maddon moving to the National League and taking the Chicago Cubs job this year, it certainly was anticipated that he may try things that may appear to go against the grain. Maddon has stuck with the idea practically all season that his pitcher bats eighth in the lineup. NL pitchers have almost always hit ninth, due to the fact that it gives them the least amount of at-bats in a lineup. Other managers have certainly used this tactic before and it wasn’t breaking the norm. It’s what Maddon has done with the pitcher in those eighth place at-bats which is breaking historical trends.
With pitchers being weaker hitters, for whatever theory you want to use – the most common being that that isn’t what they’re being paid to be practicing – it’s not always a desirable thing to have them taking hacks with the lumber. If a runner is on first and/or second with less than two outs, its commonplace to simply try to have the pitcher put the ball in play and hope to advance the runner for the top of the lineup. As previously mentioned, Maddon has only had four successful sac bunts from his pitchers this year. The next lowest total for an NL team is the San Diego Padres with 11. Even the Chicago White Sox pitchers have had three successes, and they are in the American League. What may be even more shocking is the Cubs’ first success didn’t happen until June 13th, or the Cubs 60th game on the 2015 season.
It’s somewhat difficult to track all sacrifice attempts as sites like ESPN only track successes. Even Baseball-Reference play descriptions only mark whether a bunt was the final pitch of the at-bat. If a pitcher came up and attempted a bunt on the first two strikes and struck out looking, it becomes difficult to track that as a sacrifice attempt as the scorecard would simply show a backwards K. Going off Baseball-References play descriptions, Cubs pitchers had only attempted sacrifice bunts four times in the first 59 games of the season. Just looking at the Cubs top four starting pitchers (no other pitcher has started more than seven games), there were 23 opportunities in which Lester, Arrieta, Hendricks, or Hammel came up to bat with a runner on base and less than two outs. That isn’t the largest sample size, but a 0 for 23 success rate is alarming (technically, there was one single and one sacrifice fly). Since Hendricks finally laid down that successful sacrifice on June 13, those four have had 12 similar at-bats and have bunted six times, succeeding four times. It just might mean Maddon has finally realized that using his pitchers to bunt was the best strategy, no matter what the analysts say.
The Cubs are 25th in the Majors and dead last in the NL in sac bunts (the top 11 teams in the league are from the NL). However, last year Maddon’s Rays were 17th in the Majors and actually second in the AL in sac bunts. In 2013, the Rays were 28th in the Majors and in 2012, they were 22nd so it is possible that last year was the fluke.
Billy Beane is clearly known as a sabermetrics follower (possibly the leader) and the Athletics have been 28th or lower in sac bunts the last three years and this year only have eight total and in last. Maddon may be learning at the church of Beane, but the National League is literally a whole different ballgame. A strong argument can be made against taking the bat out of the hands of an AL second baseman who bats .240. It’s a different argument when you’re discussing a pitcher. Cubs’ pitchers are currently 13th in batting average in the NL so it’s not like when Maddon is giving them a shot they are rewarding him. The New York Mets pitchers are hitting .180 this year so Terry Collins may give his hurlers a longer leash. Maddon’s Cubs are at .112 but it may be that it took him a few months to get accustomed to the new league. With the Cubs itching for their first postseason berth since 2008, they’re hoping Maddon continues to push as many right buttons as possible – look for that button to be continuing his pitchers bunting more often.
Casey Boguslaw is a Featured Writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find Casey on twitter @CaseyBoguslaw, leave a comment in the section below, or let us know what you think on Twitter @CTBPod or on our Facebook page.