To Bunt or Not to Bunt: The Toronto Blue Jays Versus the Baltimore Orioles

On Wednesday, the Orioles and Jays were tied, heading into the tenth inning. The Orioles opted to execute a sacrifice bunt; the Blue Jays decided not to bunt in their half of the inning. Were the decisions to bunt/not bunt reasonable?


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On June 15, in the top of the 10th inning in a 6-6 game, Orioles Manager Branden Hyde made a tactical decision that received much criticism. With Kyle Stowers on second base because of the runner-on-second rule in extra innings, Hyde decided to ask Jorge Mateo to make a sacrifice bunt attempt. Mateo succeeded, and the Orioles ended with Stowers on third with one out. Unfortunately for Baltimore, Toronto’s Adam Cimber retired the next two batters, and the Orioles failed to score. The Blue Jays won the game in the bottom of the inning when Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s base hit scored Bo Bichette.

 

Hyde’s decision to call for a sacrifice bunt received a lot of social media scrutiny, mainly in the form of criticism. The consensus was that the bunt selection was a poor choice. The most common reason cited for the complaint is that analytics has demonstrated that the sacrifice bunt wastes an out. From an analytics perspective, let’s examine why Hyde’s decision is defensible.

 

Tam Tango developed Table 1, a Win Expectancy Table for the runner-on-second rule. The matrix was created before the 2020 season, the first time the runner-on-second rule was used at the MLB level. Let’s review some examples from the table to see how the matrix works.

 

The first item to observe is that the table is from the home team’s perspective. Hence, Toronto started the top half of the tenth inning with a 50% chance of winning (Row 3, Column 1). When Mateo executed a successful sacrifice bunt, the Blue Jays’ winning probability increased from .500 to 0.518 (Row 5, Column 2). Therefore, according to the matrix, Hyde’s decision to bunt reduced Baltimore’s likelihood of winning. Suppose Mateo had hit an RBI single instead of laying down a sacrifice bunt, Toronto’s chances of winning would have been 0.318 (Row 2, Column 4) and not 0.518. Hyde made a poor call, correct? Not necessarily.

 

The Win Expectancy Matrix is based upon historical results for all teams in similar situations (score, number of outs and what bases were occupied, if any). Therefore, the matrix is a summary that, on average, shows the probability of a team winning in a given situation. The term “average” is critical because the matrix shows the average change in the chance of winning due to an alteration of the game state (for example, Stowers moving from second to third with one out). By inference, the changes reflected in the matrix are the results produced by the average player. Does it matter that Baltimore’s hitters are below-average? Short answer, yes.

 

Here are the factors to consider:

  • Mateo has 63 wRC+, 37% worse than the average hitter and a 0.245 OBP.
  • The batter following Mateo was Ryan McKenna, who sports a 65 wRC+ and a 54.3% GB%. The MLB average GB% is 43.0%.
  • Next in the batting order was Cedric Mullins and his 94 wRC+.
  • On the bench were Robinson Chirinos (49 wRC+ overall and a 35 wRC+ versus right-handed pitchers) and Riche Martin (career 35 wRC+ when facing right-handed pitchers).
  • Trey Mancini was injured and unavailable.

 

Let’s tie the facts together and see how Hyde’s decision to bunt was reasonable. The first item to acknowledge is that Hyde did not have good options on his bench. Next, Mateo’s weak-hitting profile suggests he was not up to getting a hit or drawing a walk. If Mateo were to make an out without advancing Stowers, Toronto’s chance of winning would increase from 0.500 to 0.607 (Row 3, Column 2). Also, Mateo looked very good at executing a sacrifice bunt. Furthermore, with Stowers on third, the Blue Jays elected to bring the infield in and make a play at the plate on a ground ball, a standard defensive tactic. From Toronto’s perspective, a drawn-in infield increases the chances of throwing Stowers out at the plate on a groundball hit to an infielder; the downside is that the odds of an infield hit rise with a drawn-in infield. Therefore, McKenna’s 54.3% GB% indicates that he may be able to get a ball through the infield. I think Hyde’s sacrifice bunt choice was reasonable given the batters at his disposal. The successful sacrifice bunt reduced Baltimore’s win probability by 1.8 percentage points (per the matrix). Still, the reduction was likely more than offset by playing to the strength of Mateo (executing a sacrifice bunt) and McKenna (54.3% GB% and a drawn-in infield).

 

What about the Blue Jays’ bottom of the tenth? Concerning the Win Expectancy Matrix, it is essential to note an aspect of the table for the home team in the bottom of the inning.  When the inning began, the home team had a 50% chance of winning. However, if the away team does not score in their half of the inning, the home team’s chance of winning is 81.2% (Row 11, Column 1).

 

Why is the home team’s chance of winning in a game tied, entering the bottom of the tenth higher than the away team’s was at the top of the frame? The reason is that Tango’s probability model showed that runs occurred in 72% of tenth innings. Accordingly, Tango had to adjust the table to reflect that if the away team did not score in the top of the tenth, the home team’s probability of winning must be higher than 50%. This adjustment is also consistent with the home team’s chance of winning in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game (63.4%).

 

Now to Toronto’s home half of the tenth. Bichette was the runner on second to start the Jays inning, and Guerrero Jr. was scheduled to bat. Suppose Charlie Montoyo adhered strictly to the Win Expectancy Matrix. Then Montoyo should have asked Guerrero Jr. to execute a sacrifice bunt because the Blue Jays’ win probability would have increased from 0.812 (Row 11, Column 1) to 0.832 (Row 13, Column 2). However, Montoyo opted for Guerrero Jr. to hit. Why? Because the win Expectancy Matrix depicts the average results and Guerrero Jr. (141 wRC+) is anything but an average hitter. Also, Guerrero Jr. was followed by Alejandro Kirk (143 wRC+) and Teoscar Hernandez (102 wRC+ but had two hits, including a home run, in four plate appearances) if necessary. Montoyo’s tactic was reasonable, albeit counter to the Win Expectancy data.

 

Hyde’s decision to pitch to Guerrero Jr. and not intentionally walk him was a head-scratcher. Suppose Baltimore issued an intentional pass to Guerrero Jr., Toronto’s winning probability would have increased from 0.812 to 0.815 (Row 12, Column 1). Next up at the plate was Kirk, who has an 18.8% GIDP rate, much higher than MLB’s 9.9% GIDP rate. However, no matter what, the Orioles would have to pitch to a well-above-average hitter. Therefore, why not set up a potential double-play, particularly when the runner on first is highly likely not to matter? I think this scenario was one in which the “old school” and “analytics” crowds agree: walk the elite batter, set up a double play situation and take your chances with the other above-average hitters.

 

The Last Word

Baltimore’s decision to opt for the sacrifice bunt is an example that an analytically-based observation, in this case, the Win Expectancy Matrix, should be used as a guideline and not as a hard rule with no exceptions. Similarly, despite what the matrix suggested, Toronto’s choice not to execute a sacrifice bunt with Bichette on second base was reasonable given the quality of the batters that Montoyo had at his disposal. Concerning Baltimore’s choice to pitch to Guerrero Jr., well, no.

 

 

 

*Featured Images Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.

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Bob Ritchie

Bob was a St. Louis Cardinals fan until the Blue Jays arrived on the baseball scene, although he still has a soft spot for the Cards. Similar to straddling the Greenwich Meridian, as depicted in the avatar, Bob applies sabermetrics when applicable, but his heart tells him that Lou Brock belongs in the Hall of Fame.