A: A Twins Geekish one, apparently. Because yesterday, after a 11-2 thrashing of the Mariners, the most talked about story wasn’t my favorite, which would have been how the Twins signed Ramon Ortiz at half the salary level of Jeff Weaver. (No, I didn’t think that would be anyone else’s story. I’m a geek. We’ve established that.) It wasn’t Luis Rodriguez showing Twins Territory some glove. It wasn’t even Torii Hunter, despite a grand slam and a shoulder/wrist injury.
No, the biggest talker yesterday (as judged by random chats I received) was Joe Mauer’s bunt in the fifth inning. If you missed it, there were runners on first and second base and no outs in a game that the Twins led 3-1. Weaver had started the inning giving up three straight singles to Piranhas, and given up a run. Mauer laid a bunt down the third base line which died in the Safeco rough, Seattle catcher Kenji Johjima raced up the line, and his throw just beat Mauer racing to first base.
Later that inning Hunter hit a grand slam that essentially decided the game, so nobody was arguing with the result as much as the decision. The debate raged in part because Mauer did something similar last week, bunting when it seemed like the Twins really needed him to swing away.
Judging from the feedback I received, the anti-bunt side has introduced some rather strange bedfellows. On the one hand, there are those who are pretty damn convinced that bunting is usually stupid, and that the Twins do too much of it. They’ve found themselves aligned with another crowd who just wants Mauer to start hitting for some power, or at least drive in some more runs, dammit.
Last week we talked about how a person’s philosophy frames their reality and this bunt seems to be another example. Those fans whose pet peeve is watching the Twins bunt themselves silly are livid because they think this is another example. And those that feel that Mauer’s popularity needs to be justified by some offensive fireworks are equally perturbed. But objectively, this was a completely justifiable decision, whether or not Hunter hit that home run.
Mauer’s bunt wasn’t necessarily meant to be a sacrifice. There is a reason that that Johjima had to play that ball, and it was because the third baseman was playing back. If the ball would have rolled a foot farther, Mauer would have been safe, meaning the bases would have been loaded with no outs. The actual outcome also really wasn’t so bad – runners on second and third base with one out and a very good chance to add to the lead with Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau up next.
I’m especially surprised that anyone who claims they’re baseball philosophy is steeped in sabermetrics should argue about this. I’m pretty sure we can do a quick study that shows that sabermetric theory practically DEMANDS a bunt in that position. Let’s find out.
One tool that is really handy for talking about in game strategies is something called Thorn and Palmer’s Expected Runs Matrix. It is just a cute little grid that shows, given a certain number of outs and people on base, the average number of runs that should score, based on 75 years of major league games. It was published in The Hidden Game of Baseball by Pete Palmer and John Thorn. It looks like this.
|OUTS||None||1st||2nd||3rd||1st & 2nd||1st & 3rd||2nd & 3rd||Full|
- When Mauer came up to bat, the Twins could have expected to score 1.380 runs.
- Even though he failed to get a base hit, the Twins could have been expected to score 1.371 runs because he at least advanced the baserunners. And that was the (essentially) the worst case scenario.
- With the third baseman playing back, Mauer was trying to bunt his way onto first base, which would have put the Twins in a position to average 2.254 runs, which adds almost a full run to what they could have expected.
Now there’s plenty of details that one can quibble about here. For starters, I only highlighted the two most likely scenarios, and some worse stuff could happen, like Mauer popping up to the catcher. Of course, that works both ways, and Mauer often hits the ball hard enough to ground into double plays.
One might also argue that if you’re going to have roughly 1.3 runs sitting out there for your team to pick up, you would rather have Mauer batting against Weaver than Cuddyer, and I agree with that. That’s a good argument to not have Mauer sacrifice if the third baseman is anticipating the bunt, but not when he’s playing back and opening up a real opportunity for a bunt base hit.
Finally, one additional point that further supports his bunt is that up two runs with Ortiz on the mound and a helluva bullpen, the probability of scoring one or two runs was more important than trying maximize the total number of runs scored in the inning. Even a straight sacrifice is justifiable in that scenario.
We can be pretty sure that while he was in the on-deck circle, Mauer wasn’t sneaking time with an abacus to figure this all out. And that decision might have been made for the wrong reasons, so maybe it will bite back in a future game.
But Mauer’s job at that point wasn’t to drive Weaver from the game, and it wasn’t to justify the state’s man-crush by flexing his muscles. His job was to help his team score some runs, and almost any way you look at it, he accomplished that. We should probably save our rage for an event that deserves it.