Joe Posnanski didn't really believe that Billy Beane has thrown over baseball for soccer, couldn't believe it ... until he noticed that Daric Barton, Oakland's first baseman and best hitter (which isn't saying much, but bear with us) has nine sacrifice hits this season ...
I had to read this paragraph about nine times — one for each sac bunt. Daric Barton, the team’s first baseman, is leading the league in sacrifice bunts? For the Oakland A’s? And he’s doing it by moving runners SECOND TO THIRD with NOBODY OUT? And EVERYBODY IS HAPPY ABOUT IT? (That’s Barty,” hitting coach Jim Skaalen said. “Team first, a professional in all areas”). What in the hell is going on over there in the Bay Area?
Apparently, Barton has been sacrifice bunting on his own ... nobody is asking him to do it. Nobody, not even the craziest bunting manager on earth, would ask him to bunt in the situations he’s been bunting:
Holy $#@$!%. Somebody tell that man to stop doing that immediately. Holy #@!$#@$. Seven of his league-leading nine sacrifice bunts were, just as he said, bunting a runner from second to third with nobody out. This isn’t just a waste of an out, it’s crumpling an out, stomping on it with disdain, and then purposely not putting it into the recycle bin. Why would you do this? There’s no double play in order. A single might score the run. According to the BaseballProspectus Run Matrix, bunting a runner from second to third reduces a team’s run expectation level from 1.09 runs to .93 runs.
But it gets much worse. Five of the nine sacrifice bunts were done in the FIRST INNING.
These days, nobody bunts much ... and the teams that do bunt might surprise you. In the American League, the two buntingest teams are the Rangers and the A's, neither of them strangers to the reams of data suggesting that sacrifice bunts are pointless (at best).
But the numbers are so small that 1) one player can make a big difference, and 2) there's little effect on scoring, generally. To the first point, I'll note that Barton has nine of Oakland's 22 sacrifice hits, and Elvis Andrus has nine of the Rangers' 24. To the second point, I'll simply suggest that nine sacrifice hits, even by your best hitter in odd situations, probably isn't going to cost you, theoretically speaking, more than two or three runs.
Granted, you don't want to give away two or three runs because you never know when two or three runs will be the difference between October and non-October; it's rare, but it does happen. Which makes me wonder if two or three runs is simply the price that Billy Beane (and Bob Geren) is willing to pay for non-conformity.
Billy Beane once said to me -- actually, he might have said it more than once -- "When everybody's zigging, I like to zag."
There might be a corollary to that, though. Something like, "When everybody's saying I like to zig, I zag."
Maybe Daric Barton just got a crazy idea in his head that the best hitter on the team should give himself up every so often, and his manager just didn't want to discourage that sort of selfless (if counter-productive) thinking. And maybe the manager's boss really is so obsessed with the Premier League and now the World Cup to put a stop to it. But I can't help wondering whether the general manager is sitting back right now, and chortling about our inability to figure out what the holy $#@$!% he's doing.