If the Chicago Cubs were in a pennant race then manager Dale Sveum's decision to have Donnie Murphy bunt in the ninth inning of Thursday's 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates would be dissected for days to come. Sports radio and Twitter would have blown up over it.
The outcome of the game may matter little, but the Cubs are in evaluation mode, for their players and their manager. It's been debated often among Cubs fans: Will Sveum be the manager when and if the Cubs turn the corner? That's uncertain, but the better question is, how exactly are the Cubs evaluating him considering he doesn't have a roster to be judged based on win and losses?
Inevitably, he'll probably be judged on two things: Are young players developing under his tutelage and does he have the respect of the clubhouse during a time that has seen the Cubs use a record amount of players in back-to-back seasons.
But what about in-game moves? They may not matter now but they will someday. Can't we get an insight into Sveum's abilities despite managing a bad team?
That brings us back to the ninth inning bunt on Thursday. It was curious on several levels as the whole idea of a sacrifice bunt has been well debated over the years. But in this instance it's even more curious.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, the run expectancy this year in baseball with runners on first and second and none out is 1.42. With runners on second and third and one out it's 1.29. We can debate whether a bunt would have been a good move down just one run. But it made little sense down two. And of course those numbers don't take into account the times when the bunter isn't able to execute the sacrifice as Murphy was unable to do. He popped the ball up for an easy out on the first pitch. The Cubs went down meekly after that, giving the Pirates their 85th win of the season while the Cubs dropped their 84th.
Many might say throw out those bunt statistics, they're close enough any way. Go with your gut. And that's certainly where knowing your batter comes into play. In parts of eight years in the major leagues, Murphy has sacrificed successfully four times. But that's not even the issue. All players -- conceivably -- should be able to bunt.
The issue is Murphy is one of your better hitters, especially late in games. Maybe next year will be different as statistics like clutch hitting change often from year-to-year. But right now, taking the bat out of Murphy's hands is a big mistake. He has 10 home runs in 115 at-bats. His 20 RBIs rank 10th on the team and he's only been here since Aug. 3.
Murphy is tied (six) for the most home runs of any Cubs hitter late in games, which is defined by the seventh inning or later. That's for the whole season and he's been with the Cubs for just over a month. He has the highest batting average (.316) and on-base percentage (.409) of any Cub late in games. As you'd imagine his slugging percentage (.868) and OPS (1.278) are off the charts as well. And late, in close games -- such as Thursday -- Murphy's average goes up to .385 and his on-base percentage to .500.
Sveum knows all these numbers but decided to take the bat out of Murphy's hands anyway. Maybe he believed the next batter, Junior Lake, would come through with a big hit or they would walk Lake and put the pressure on themselves in facing Welington Castillo or someone else with bases loaded and one out. None of those options were better than letting Murphy bat.
The move probably won't mean much for Sveum's future. It's the accumulation of moves and player development and clubhouse leadership that will be examined, but the question needs to be asked for the day when it does matter.
The look on Murphy's face after he popped up that first pitch was one of disgust. We just don't know if it was disgust in himself, or his manager, for asking the Cubs' hottest hitter to lay down his bat.