On the second pitch of the 2013 season, Everth Cabrera laid down a sacrifice bunt. As I once lamented at the old blog, “if your #2 hitter lays down a sacrifice bunt in the first inning… then you probably need to find another #2 hitter.”
The culprit in that case was Luis Rodríguez, but the point remains. Why give away an out so early in the game in the hope of scoring a single run? The fact that the Padres didn’t score after Cabrera’s bunt and ended up losing, 11-2, makes it look ridiculous, but regardless of outcome, this is a poor tactic.
I’m not the only person who doesn’t like to see the second-place hitter bunt. No less an authority than Bill James called out the Padres skipper for such behavior:
I’ve got a lot of respect for Dick Williams, but I don’t understand bunting with your #2 hitter.
Granted, that was in the Alan Wiggins comment of the 1984 Baseball Abstract, but still. Oh wait, you thought I was going to complain about Bud Black? Funny thing about that. He hasn’t been as egregious in his deployment of this tactic as you might have guessed.
In examining the Padres’ history of bunting with the two hitter:
- I considered only successful sacrifices and not failed attempts.
- I did not differentiate by inning, so a ninth-inning sacrifice (which might make sense) is counted the same as a first-inning sacrifice (which never makes sense).
- To put every season on a level playing field, even those shortened by work stoppages, I counted by sacrifice hits per 100 plate appearances.
Here are the five highest (worst) totals in Padres history:
|1988||23||3.18||Jack McKeon/Larry Bowa|
The Padres led the National League in sacrifices by the no. 2 hitter in 1975, 1978, and 1988. They finished second to Atlanta in 1976 and to Houston in 1979.
You’ll notice that most of these fall in the years 1975-1979. It would be good to check league norms then vs now to see if there has been a shift in the way managers handle the second batter in their lineup. I didn’t do this in detail, but here’s a quick-and-dirty proxy:
Interestingly, the Padres led NL clubs in sacrifices by the no. 2 hitter in 1975 and were last in 2005. Different styles of play in different eras played a role, but so did the presence of McNamara, Craig, and light-hitting shortstop Enzo Hernández.
The 1975 season stands out like a sore thumb (that thumb wouldn’t be sore if you just stopped bunting), because of Hernández, who notched 157 plate appearances in the two-hole that year and laid down 19 sacrifice hits. That’s 12.10 per 100 PA, higher than, e.g., Greg Maddux’s career total of 9.93.
Hernández hit .192/.261/.216 while batting second in ’75, so having him bunt was excusable. As long as he was going to make an out, he might as well advance the runner. What wasn’t excusable–even with the limited options available–was having him bat second. Hernández was a terrible hitter.
I don’t love that Black had Cabrera bunt in the first on Opening Day. And having Will Venable bunt in the same situation on Thursday with Cabrera (last season’s stolen base leader) at first and Mark Kotsay (worse hitter than Venable) on deck is even more puzzling.
But never mind all that for the moment and look at the numbers under Black’s tenure:
Hist: Rank (out of 44) in Padres history for SH/100 by no. 2 hitters in a single season.
NL: Rank (out of 16) among NL teams for SH/100 by no. 2 hitters that season.
This doesn’t absolve Black of all responsibility, but he’s less awful than I’d expected. He’s never been the worst (peaking at third in the NL in 2009), which may surprise some folks who feel daggers every time he calls for his no. 2 hitter to intentionally make an out. Also, the difference between Black and his predecessor, Bruce Bochy, is noticeable.
Bochy’s final season with the Padres, 2006, is the only season the team hasn’t gotten a single sacrifice out of the two-hole. Here’s a comparison between Black and Bochy during their time in San Diego, with Williams thrown in for good measure since James called him out on it. I’ve added slash lines as well so you can see how much less Black has had to work with in that spot:
Amusingly, since Black took over in San Diego, he hasn’t had his no. 2 hitter bunt as often as Bochy has in San Francisco. From 2007 to 2012, Black’s Padres were about league average in that regard:
I don’t need to remind you that Bochy has won two World Series with the Giants.
Meanwhile, be grateful that Black is no McNamara or Craig. And remember that even Williams had Tony Gwynn drop down three sacrifice bunts in the two-hole in 1984, when the Padres won their first NL championship. I’m thinking Black wouldn’t have had Gwynn do that.
So the moral of the story is: You can get away with a lot if your team is good enough. Now go to sleep.
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