They Won't Sacrifice Beliefs

Times Staff Writer

In this computer-assisted era of baseball analysis, where decades of data can be scrutinized in seconds, perhaps no conventional strategy has been challenged as much as the sacrifice bunt.

In general, analysts question plays in which outs can be squandered in the quest for an extra base. In particular, the sacrifice bunt draws criticism because statistics show a team is more likely to score with a runner on first and none out than with a runner on second and one out.

But the sacrifice bunt is alive and well in Southern California. As the Angels and Dodgers meet this weekend at Angel Stadium, the bunt remains a favorite page in the playbook of Angel Manager Mike Scioscia and Dodger Manager Jim Tracy.

"This game is a lot more than hunches," Scioscia said, "but it's more than pure statistical analysis."

Said Tracy: "It all depends on the situation and the personnel involved. You're talking about the human element."

In an analysis that extended beyond the general "don't bunt" conclusion, James Click of Baseball Prospectus called the sacrifice "an archaic, outdated strategy" but reported his computer models indicated a bunt is "a good idea when pitchers are batting and, for most of the hitters in the league, when there is a man on second, no one out and a single run is the goal."

By advancing a runner to third base with one out, he can score on a hit or an out. In general, however, surrendering an out reduces the chance of scoring multiple runs in an inning.

Although Dodger General Manager Paul DePodesta embraces new-era statistical analysis -- and does plenty of it on his own -- Tracy said DePodesta has not ordered him to stop bunting in certain situations or second-guessed a decision to bunt.

"Never," Tracy said. "I admire him for that."

Said DePodesta: "I haven't had a problem with the way we've utilized the bunt. I leave the game management to him. We will talk about things, more about concepts, but I'm not going to tell him how to manage any one game."

The Angels ranked second in the American League last season in sacrifice bunts (56) and attempts (75), according to Stats Inc. The Dodgers ranked 10th in the National League last season in bunts (69) and 11th in attempts (90).

"The one thing that does get overlooked is to assume that, by putting the bunt on, it's going to be successful," DePodesta said. "That's not nearly the case. In those situations, you give up an out and don't advance the baserunner."

Under that standard, the Dodgers' execution has been poor this season. Click's analysis reveals a bunt play succeeds -- runner moves up, batter out -- about 60% of the time. The play fails -- runner out, batter safe at first -- about 25% of the time, with such outcomes as errors and double plays accounting for the other 15%.

The Angels have succeeded at a 75% rate last season and 72% this season, but the Dodgers have fallen from 77% to 57%. They rank sixth in the National League in attempts but 13th in successes.

But even DePodesta, who has not emphasized bunting ability in assembling his roster, does not discount the value of the sacrifice.

"If I play my home games in Coors Field, I'm probably not going to be doing a whole lot of bunting," he said. "If I play my home games in Petco Park or Dodger Stadium, it's probably going to be a more valuable tool."

When scoring one run is the objective, Scioscia and Tracy don't apologize for the use of the sacrifice.

"We've done it an awful lot in the latter part of the game. When you have a closer the stature of Eric Gagne and you're a run away from using him, I think that's some of what you take into consideration," Tracy said last week.

These are some other things, according to the managers: If you don't bunt, how much is the batter at risk of hitting into a double play? Are you bunting to get to a batter on a hot streak, or in a slump? To get to the cleanup batter, the No. 9 hitter or a pinch-hitter?

Is the opposing pitcher wild, or is he throwing strikes? Have you already used your closer and setup man, and has the other team? Are you really better off trying to string together three hits against an opposing closer? What do your scouting reports say about the opponents' bunt defense?

Scioscia laughed when asked when he could envision asking Vladimir Guerrero, the defending AL most valuable player, to bunt.

"Never," Scioscia said. "He's got a chance to get the run you need even if nobody's on base."

Teams assembled under the influence of statistical analysis tend to eschew plays that could involve giving up outs, or running into them. But Angel bench coach Joe Maddon, who handles some of the team's computer analysis, said those teams miss what can be a critical element in real life.

"When you face a team like that, the pitcher doesn't have to split his concentration," Maddon said. "You only have to worry about the hitter. You know they're not going to hit-and-run, they're not going to steal and they're not going to squeeze."

The Oakland Athletics are poster boys for the strategy of playing for the big inning.

The A's appeared in four playoff series over the last five years and lost them all, a result Maddon suggested could be attributed in part to their inability to play small ball against top pitchers.

"When someone like Roy Halladay is pitching, you might want to play for one or two runs early if you get the opportunity," Maddon said.

The A's, with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder traded and Barry Zito struggling, have fallen into last place in the AL West.

"Oakland's pitching allowed that concept to work," Maddon said. "The Big Three allowed that concept to work.

"To me, you're simplifying the game way too much if you think you can build your team around that concept and be successful."

On the other hand, the team that bunted the fewest times last season -- the Boston Red Sox -- won the World Series.

"When you have a team like the Red Sox, you know what they're going to do and they're still going to beat your brains out," Maddon said. "The rest of the teams trying to play that way can't do that."

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