A point of contention among members of the baseball community is bunting. Most sabermetricians would tell you that the sacrifice bunt is overused because it gives away an out while a lot of on-field Dusty Baker/Harold Reynolds type people love bunting to move runners closer to the plate. I’m not here to argue for or against bunting, but rather to offer you a tool for determining the answer for yourself. This tool is a Run Expectancy Matrix.
The idea behind Run Expectancy is figuring out how many runs, on average, a team scores in a given situation (based on the number of outs and which bases are occupied). The values are based on long run averages and you can calculate them based on many years or a single year, but the ratios are generally going to be the same. Presented below is the matrix from 2012. What you see in the grid is the expected number of runs a team will score given the situation as presented by the top row and left column. You can use the RE Matrix to determine which strategic move is best for you.
So let’s use an example. Runner on 1st base, no outs. At this point, the team is expected to score .8577 runs this inning because, on average, teams have scored that many runs in the inning after those situations have occurred. If we were to sacrifice bunt in this situation, we would move to runner on 2nd, 1 out, which has an expected run value of .6551. That’s obviously less than .8577, so the sacrifice bunt in that situation is not the right play on average. You can play around with other situations on your own.
An important caveat is that this chart is context neutral and reflects averages. If the baserunner is Austin Jackson and the guy bunting is Miguel Cabrera, you’re hurting yourself more than if the runner is Victor Martinez and the bunter is Ramon Santiago. You should be more willing to give up an out to move a runner if the batter is more likely to make an out. However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ever the right play to give up the out. A pitcher who hits .150 is almost definitely going to make an out, so you want him to move the runner up, but Miguel Cabrera is pretty likely going to get a hit relative to average, so you don’t want him intentionally making an out.
I don’t mean to suggest that you should take these numbers as gospel, but rather that you should be aware of which situations lead to the most runs and which situations you want to get yourself into if possible. The takeaway here is that we know how many runs a team is likely to score in a given situation and we can make some sort of educated prediction about what will happen if we do something else. Context matters, but this matters too.
I’m generally not a fan of the sacrifice bunt (or conversely the intentional walk), but there are occasional situations in which it makes sense. This RE Matrix should help you better understand which situations call for which moves.
As always, if you have questions about how this works or how to use it, feel free to comment or contact us. Also, please let us know if there is a statistic or sabermetric concept you’d like to learn about and we’d be happy to cover it.