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October 19, 2005


Can we dispense with the idea that the Ranger offense would improve by emulating the Houston Astros? Please?

In the past week, both Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star Telegram and Evan Grant of the Dallas Mornning News have made the case that Texas needs more sacrifice hits, and both made their argument by citing Houston’s four-sac performance against Atlanta in Game 1 of the NLDS . Says Mr. Grant:

...the most significant stat on the Rangers’ season [is] not the near-record 260 homers they hit, but the offensive record they did set. That was the one for fewest sacrifice bunts in a season. They had nine. Houston had four in its first playoff game. And the Astros ended up with 10 runs in that game.

260 homers have less significance than nine sac bunts? Really? If that’s the case, athletes should be bunting in all sports, not just baseball. Drew Bledsoe might throw six touchdown passes next week if he bunted a few times. I’m going to start bunting in my dart league once I figure out how.

But seriously, folks, the implication is clear: Texas hit a million homers but couldn’t advance runners the old-fashioned way, and they’re sitting on their couches watching the playoffs on teevee. Meanwhile, Houston is in the playoffs AND winning with their drunk-on-bunts strategy. I know Grant knows that Houston paved their road to the postseason with fantastic pitching, not hitting, but he did say what he said.

A quick note about sacrifice bunting for the uninitiated: Batters occasionally bunt for a hit, but most of the time the purpose of a sacrifice bunt is to give up an out in exchange for an increase the probability of scoring one run. Sacrifices do increase the likelihood of scoring a run, but they also hinder the ability to score multiple runs in an inning.

Regarding the issue of whether Texas should bunt more often, first I’ll examine the game situation for each of Houston’s four successful sacrifice bunts and whether they apply to Texas under American League rules. Second, I’ll explore differences in the teams on a more general level.

The game:

1st inning, score 0-0: Biggio walked. Taveras bunted Biggio to second. Berkman walked (not intentionally but on four pitches). Ensberg singled home Biggio.
Texas would have Michael Young batting in this situation. Young led the AL in batting average and threw in 40 doubles and 24 homers for good measure. He even walked a career-best 58 times. Bunting here would be foolish. Note that back in 2002 when Young didn’t hit well (.262/.308/.382) and often filled the #9 slot, he had thirteen sac bunts. Weak hitters should bunt more often because the decreased likelihood of advancing runners via hits or walks. Willy Taveras is a weak hitter. He batted a respectable .291 but with 49 fewer extra-base hits and 33 fewer walks than Young. Basically, he’s only good for getting singles, and in fact drag-bunting for singles is his best talent. Having Taveras bunt makes sense. Again, having Young bunt would not.
4th inning, score 3-1: Ausmus doubled. Pettitte bunted Ausmus to third. Biggio hit sac fly scoring Ausmus.
Pitchers don’t bat in the American League except in NL parks and bizarre circumstances. Texas might have Rod Barajas or Mark DeRosa up here. With a two-run lead and no risk of a double play, Texas should swing away and play for a big inning. As to why Houston had Pettitte bunt with none out and the runner already at second, Pettitte had a terrible year at the plate (.081/.094/.081). His 7th-inning double (see below) was only his sixth hit and first extra-base hit all season.
7th inning, score 4-3: Pettitte doubled(!). Biggio bunted Pettitte to third. Taveras grounded out. Berkman walked intentionally. Ensberg singled home Pettitte.
David Dellucci would bat here. Dellucci batted only .251 but drew 76 walks and hit a career-best 29 homers. (If Atlanta put in a lefty to face Dellucci, Texas probably would counter with Mark DeRosa or Phil Nevin.) Young, Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira would follow Dellucci or his replacement. Playing for one run seems ill-advised. For that matter, I question having Biggio bunt, since Taveras doesn’t hit well and Atlanta certainly won’t allow Berkman to swing the bat. Biggio’s bunt practically insures the need for a two-out hit from Ensberg (which he did deliver).
8th inning, score 5-3: Everett singled. Ausmus singled, Everett to second. Pettitte bunted both runners over. Biggio walked intentionally. Bagwell (batting for Taveras) singled home Everett. Berkman struck out. Ensberg walked, Ausmus scored.
Again, pitchers don’t bat for Texas. Barajas, assuming he fills the #9 slot, has a tolerable strikeout rate (about one per six at-bats) and hit into only six doubles plays all season. Bunting isn’t a terrible idea, but neither is letting the man swing.

The Astros placed four successful sacrifice bunts against Atlanta, advancing five runners, all of whom scored. That’s outstanding baseball and a large part of Houston’s victory in Game 1. Nevertheless, in only one of those four situations does bunting even approach a logical maneuver for Texas. Two of Houston’s four bunts were by the pitcher and one was by a weak-hitting #2 hitter in the first inning. Those characteristics don’t apply even remotely to Texas.

On a macro level, the value of sacrificing increases in a low-scoring environment and decreases when runs are plentiful. Pretend that runs in baseball are as infrequent as goals in soccer. The value of one run would be immense, often the difference between winning and losing. Surrendering an out to increase the chance of scoring one run would almost always constitute a winning strategy. Conversely, pretend that baseball is like softball, where (in my low-level beer league) scores of 18-12 are common. In this environment, one run doesn’t mean so much and giving up outs spells disaster.

Run-scoring in baseball falls into a much narrower range, of course, but the fictional examples above help to describe how different environments favor or discourage sacrifice bunts. Regarding Texas and Houston, those environments could not be more opposed:

Combined runs by team and opponent, 2005:

Team         Runs     Runs/Game    MLB Rank
Texas 1,712 10.63 1st
Houston 1,302 8.04 30th

Though sacrifice hits are situation-driven, low-scoring and close games tend to create more situations where sac bunts are worthwhile. Houston played almost twice as many games of that variety than Texas:

Games with Seven or Fewer Total Runs:

                                 Games With
Games With <=7 Total Runs &
Team <=7 Total Runs <= 2-Run Margin

Texas 47 28
Houston 86 53

Does Texas need to bunt more? Maybe a few more would help. I don’t know. Here’s what I do know:
  • Citing a National League team as a reason why Texas should bunt more doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Nor does citing a bad offensive team like Houston.
  • Texas had the fourth-best offense in the AL (after adjusting for park) behind New York, Boston and Cleveland. Without question, they have areas needing improvement. Still, the offense played well on the whole.
  • If Texas had Houston’s pitching staff, they would have allowed about 670 runs instead of 858 and won about 101 games instead of 79.

Posted by Lucas at October 19, 2005 06:40 PM