In Game 7 of the World Series anyone who was watching the top of the 9^{th} inning probably remembers Javier Baez attempting a (safety squeeze – presumably) bunt on a 3-2 count with 1 out and Jason Heyward on 3rd base. You also remember that Baez struck out on a foul ball, much to the consternation of Cubs fans.

There was plenty of noise on social media criticizing Maddon (or Baez, if he did that on his own) for such an unusual play (you rarely see position players bunt on 2-strike counts, let alone with a 3-2 count and let alone with a runner on 3^{rd}) and of course because it failed and eventually led to a scoreless inning. I was among those screaming bloody murder on Twitter and continuing my long-running criticism of Maddon’s dubious (in my opinion) post-season in-game tactics dating back to his Tampa days. I did, however, point out that I didn’t know off the top of my head (and it was anything but obvious or trivial to figure out) what the “numbers” were but that I was pretty sure it was a bad strategy.

Some “prima facia” evidence that it might be bad play, as I also tweeted, was, “When have you ever seen a play like that in baseball game?” That doesn’t automatically mean that it’s a bad play, but it is evidence nonetheless. And the fact that it was a critical post-season game meant nothing. If was correct to do it in that game it would be correct to do it in any game – at least in the late innings of a tie or 1-run game.

Anyway, I decided to look at some numbers although it’s not an easy task to ascertain whether in fact this was a good, bad, or roughly neutral (or we just don’t know) play. I turned to Retrosheet as I often do, and looked at what happens when a generic batter (who isn’t walked, which probably eliminates lots of good batters) does not bunt (which is almost all of the time of course) on a 3-2 count with 1 out, runner on third base and no runner on first, in a tie game or one in which the batting team was ahead, in the late innings, when the infield would likely be playing in to prevent a run from scoring on a ground ball. This is what I found:

The runner scores around 28% of the time overall. There were 33% walks (pitcher should be pitching a bit around the batter in this situation), 25% strikeouts and 25% BIP outs. When the ball is put in play, which occurs 42% of the time, the runner scores 63% of the time.

Now let’s look at what happens when a pitcher simply bunts the ball on a 3-2 count in a sacrifice situation. We’ll use that as a proxy for what Baez might do when trying to bunt in this situation. Pitchers are decent bunters overall (although they don’t run well on a bunt) and Baez is probably an average bunter *at best* for a position player. In fact, Baez has a grand total of one sacrifice hit in his entire minor and major league career so he may be an poor bunter – but to give him and Maddon the benefit of the doubt we’ll assume that he is as good at bunting as your typical NL pitcher.

On a 3-2 count in a sac situation when the pitcher is still bunting, he strikes out 40% of the time and walks 22% of the time. Compare that to the hitter who swings away at 3-2, runner on 3^{rd} and 1 out where he K’s 25% of the time and walks 33% of the time. Of those 40% strikeouts, lots are bunt fouls. In fact, pitchers strike out on a foul bunt with a 3-2 count 25% % of the time. The rest, 15%, are called strikes and missed bunt attempts. It’s very easy to strike out on a foul bunt when you have two strikes, even when there are 3 balls (and you can take some close pitches).

How often does the run score on a 3-2 bunt attempt with a runner on 3^{rd} such as in the Baez situation? From that data we can’t tell because we’re only looking at 3-2 bunts from pitchers with no runner on 3^{rd} so we have make some inferences.

The pitcher puts the ball in play 36% of the time when bunting on a 3-2 count. How often would a runner score if there *were *a runner on 3^{rd}? We’ll have to make some more inferences. In situations where a batter attempts a squeeze (either a suicide or safety – for the most part, we can’t tell from the Retrosheet data), the runner scores 80% of the time when the ball in bunted in play. So let’s assume the same with our pitchers/Baez. So 36% of the time the ball is put in play on a 3-2 bunt, 80% of the time the run scores. That’s a score rate of 29% – around the same as when swinging away.

So swinging away, the run scores 28% of the time. With a bunt attempt the run scores 29% of the time, so it would appear to be a tie with no particular strategy a clear winner. But wait….

When the run doesn’t score, the batter who is swinging away at 3-2 walks 33% of the time while the pitcher who is attempting a bunt on a 3-2 pitch walks only 25% of the time. But, we won’t count that as an advantage for the batter swinging away. The BB difference is likely due to the fact that pitchers are pitching around batters in that situation and they are going right after pitchers on 3-2 counts in sacrifice situations. In a situation like Baez’ the pitcher is going to issue more than 25% walks since he doesn’t mind the free pass and he is not going to groove one. So we’ll ignore the difference in walks. But wait again….

When a run scores on a squeeze play the batter is out 72% of the time and ends up mostly on first 28% of the time (a single, error, or fielder’s choice). When a run scores with a batter swinging away on a 3-2 count, the batter is out only 36% of the time. 21% of those are singles and errors and 15% are extra base hits including 10% triples and 5% HR.

So even though the run scores with both bunting and hitting away on a 3-2 count around the same percentage of the time, the batter is safe, including walks, hits, errors and fielder’s choices, only 26% of the time when bunting and 50% when swinging away. Additionally, when the batter swinging away gets a hit, 20% are triples and 6% are HR. So even though the runner on third scores around the same percentage of time whether swinging away or bunting on that 3-2 count, when the run *does *score, the batter who is swinging away reaches base safely (with some extras base hits including HR) more than twice as often as the batter who is bunting

I’m going to say that the conclusion is that while the bunt attempt was probably not a terrible play, it was still the wrong strategy *given that it was the top of the inning*. The runner from third will probably score around the same percentage of the time whether Baez is bunting or swinging away, but when the run does score, Baez is going to be safe a much higher percentage of the time, including via the double, triple or HR, leading to an additional run scoring significantly more often than with the squeeze attempt.

I’m not giving a pass to Maddon on this one. That would be true regardless of whether the bunt worked or not – of course.

Addendum: A quick estimate is that an additional run (or more) will score around 12% more often when swinging away. An extra run in the top of the 9th, going from a 1-run lead to a 2-run lead, increases a team’s chances of winning by 10% (after that every additional run is worth half the the value of the preceding run). So we get an extra 1.2% (10% times 12%) in win expectancy from swinging away rather than bunting via the extra hits that occur when the ball is put into play.

At some point in the at-bat I’m pretty sure that Baez’s strategy had to be suboptimal.

The defense was aligned the same way – drawn in to prevent the run scoring on a ground-ball – during the entire AB. With all else equal, deciding to bunt has a relatively lower payoff with two strikes than anytime earlier in the at-bat. This is true because of the fact that a foul bunt becomes a strikeout (there are other minor potential factors, but I am pretty certain that the foul bunt strikeout easily outweighs them). This is why defenses worried about a bunt often back up with two strikes, and why a bunter will often swing away when they reach two strikes. So, in the case that Baez bunting with two strikes was optimal, swinging away earlier in the count must have been suboptimal!

What was Maddon thinking?!?

A unique set of circumstances were necessary for the Baez strategy to be optimal. If the 3-2 bunt reduces the chances of a strikeout, but swinging away has a greater potential payoff relative to bunting, it makes sense. So:

(1) Baez must have been much less likely to strikeout while bunting than swinging away

(2) Baez must have had a much greater payoff from a swing in play than a bunt.

If these premises were true, then bunting with 2 strikes could have been optimal as the safe play to make sure Baez got something in play after taking a risk for more earlier in the at-bat.

However, it is difficult to imagine that this is the case. As you said, the 3-2 bunts end in a strikeout 40% of the time, while swinging away has a 25% K rate. Even Baez has only struck out in 39% of his career 3-2 counts. So (1) is likely not true. He probably does not have a better chance to put the ball in play by bunting. I also do not think (2) is true, that a swing in play is significantly better than a bunt in play. A bunt in play is more likely to score the run than the swinging ball in play, 80% to 63%. Baez swinging away and putting the ball in play must have increased the chances of scoring multiple runs by a massive amount for (2) to be true. I am very confident that this strategy was suboptimal.

Thanks. I’ve looong enjoyed thinking along with your explanations of baseball ideas. You write engagingly, and you virtually always offer enough explanation/steps/examples for me to follow you, without (for my mind) belaboring a point.