Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Of Bunts and Walkoff Homers...

Is it terrible that after hearing all the talk of Yunel Escobar predicting his home run the first thing that came to mind was the racist chicken-torture scene from Major League? Just seems like right up there with "never hustles" is the stereotype of the superstitious Spanish player who can't communicate with his teammates except to make outlandish predictions. Other than the camera showing the ball flying a little more center than opposite-field, the homer is a carbon copy of Yunel's last night, isn't it? Fastball up-and-away, drilled.

(Also, love that the reference in the video description is Delgado, even though Pedro Cerrano is a right handed hitter.)

I've gone on record defending the bunt over the past week (on twitter and elsewhere). In a one-run game, I am looking for a tie before I'm concerned with winning the game, because tying the game gives you a potentially infinite number of outs to work with, while going for the win is an all-or-nothing prospect with a finite timeframe - 3 outs. And bunting can contribute to that one run, even if it reduces run probability overall. In an extreme circumstance - one run deficit in the ninth, leadoff double by a fast runner, bad hitters who are good bunters coming up - I'd even defend back-to-back sac bunts. Assuming that the possibility of an error or a bunt single is roughly equivalent to the possibility that the bunter fails, I'll take what is a more or less assured tie game over the possibility that the bottom of my lineup can hit .333 over the rest of the inning.

But anyway, in the tenth, given Balfour/Suzuki's poor holding ability and Davis's presumably intimate knowledge of that, I was looking for the steal or hit-and-run more than the bunt. When Yuni smacked a fastball, I was pleasantly surprised. But the fact that Yunel got a pitch he could do that to is somewhat attributable, I think, to the situation.

I know it's very difficult to quantify how these possibilities may have affected Balfour (you can throw 17 years of sheer averages at me, which seem suggest a barely relevant point - namely that runners affect the pitcher whether or not they are fast), but I definitely think pitch selection can be affected by game circumstances, and that unpredictability is a weapon.

In the comments section of Getting Blanked during Sunday's postgame fistfight over the merits of Yunel's bunt in that game, someone linked this fangraphs article; in it, the author essentially explains how game theory should affect bunting strategy. In general, it is often in a manager's best interest to bunt slightly more than the bare statistics would suggest, because by using the bunt as a weapon he is affecting the opponent's defensive alignment. If a team goes an entire season without a sac bunt, the infielders will always play back, cutting into the offensive team's batting average on balls in play, while if a team bunts constantly, the infield will draw in, increasing the hit potential when a bunter does swing away.

I think the same can be applied to pitch sequences, loosely. If a team never bunts, the pitcher can work the bottom of the zone without any concern, while with the threat of the bunt, the pitcher may consider throwing something up in the zone.
In the long run, we'll never know for sure if Balfour was just throwing that pitch to get ahead of Escobar, or whether he threw it where he did because a high fastball is a difficult pitch to bunt and makes for an easier glove-mitt transfer for the catcher. But at the very least I think it's worth considering that the circumstances may have affected it - it's not something that can be dismissed by sarcastic twitter scoffing. To get preachy: just like the scouting crowd was once dogmatic when it came to the introduction of statistics into certain facets of the game, I think people can become entrenched in their thinking the other way. Always consider that, whatever information you have, there may be more out there to learn.

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