Tuesday, July 13, 2010
When the sac bunt is really really stupid
It happened last Saturday in Philadelphia. Best pitching duel this season. For the Phillies, Roy Halladay. For the Reds, rookie Travis Wood. After seven innings, no score ... and no baserunners for the Phillies. Wood, in just his third major league start, was pitching a perfect game.
Halladay hadn't pitched as well, of course. Not quite: He'd given up one walk and three singles, two of which hadn't left the infield. But in the top of the eighth, Miguel Cairo, batting sixth, shot a double into right field.
The next three hitters due up: Drew Stubbs, catcher Ryan Hanigan ... and Travis Wood (who had batted twice and struck out twice).
For manager Dusty Baker, the choice seems to be fairly clear: Without any good left-handed hitters on his bench, give Stubbs and Hanigan their shots at driving in Cairo and simply hope for the best ... unless he's willing to pull Wood for a pinch-hitter.
An argument might be made for doing exactly that. While a perfect game (or no-hitter) would be a wonderful thing for everyone involved, Baker also has to worry about a little thing we like to call the pennant race, as the Reds still have legitimate hopes of acing out the Cardinals in the National League Central. Making history would be nice. Somehow winning the game would be nicer.
In the event, Baker didn't replace Wood with a pinch-hitter. He also didn't give Stubbs and Hanigan their shots. Instead, he ordered Stubbs to lay down a sacrifice bunt. Granted, Stubbs is exceptionally fast and the outcome might have left Cairo on third base and Stubbs on first base.
It didn't, though. Cairo was on third base but Stubbs was out.
Now, this is not the worst trade-off in the world. You can expect to score fewer runs with one out and a runner on third base than with no outs and a runner on second base ... but the difference is small, and gets smaller if you're really interested in scoring just one run.
The difference gets bigger, though, if one of the hitters coming up can't hit.
Ryan Hanigan can hit. He struck out anyway.
Travis Wood can't hit. He struck out, too.
Miguel Cairo died on third base.
All because Baker let his obsession with the 90 feet between second base and third base -- and, frankly, the natural tendency for managers to overmanage -- trump his awareness that one of the two hitters coming up next wasn't actually a hitter at all.
I'm not picking on Baker. Just a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, Jim Riggleman did almost exactly the same thing.
Veteran star (Tim Hudson) vs. rookie (Stephen Strasburg). Scoreless after six innings. Veteran's working on a four-hitter, rookie's working on a three-hitter.
But in the top of the seventh, Roger Bernadina leads off with a double. Next up: Ian Desmond, Alberto Gonzalez ... and Strasburg.
Is Riggleman going to pinch-hit for Strasburg? Probably not.
Nevertheless, Riggleman orders Desmond to lay down the sacrifice bunt. Desmond's out, and Bernadina moves to third. Gonzalez strikes out. Strasburg hits for himself, and does not strike out. He does ground out to the shortstop, and the threat is over.
In this case, the damage isn't so obvious. Wood didn't get his perfect game or his no-hitter, and the Reds wound up losing 1-0. Baker might have won that game, but lost.
In this case, the Braves bunched together a bunch of infield singles and sacrifice flies in the bottom of the seventh, knocking out Strasburg and scoring five runs. Riggleman's decision probably didn't cost anything except a bit of credibility with anybody who was paying close attention.
The sacrifice bunt isn't always a foolish move. For too long, people like me have been too quick to point out its negatives while ignoring its positives (especially its potential to turn into a bunt single or an error). Still, can't we agree that surrendering an out for one base doesn't make sense if one of the next two hitters is a pitcher? Can't we agree on that, if nothing else?