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:

Year SH SH/100 Manager
1975 39 5.29 John McNamara
1976 28 3.87 John McNamara
1978 28 3.86 Roger Craig
1979 28 3.79 Roger Craig
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:

Year SH SH/100
Tot Hi Lo
1975 194 39 4 2.17
1985 96 17 3 1.09
1995 147 17 3 1.58
2005 186 21 3 1.57

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:

Year SH SH/100 Hist NL
2009 15 2.04 13 3
2012 11 1.50 17 4
2010 10 1.35 20 7
2007 8 1.06 22 8
2011 6 0.82 28 14
2008 6 0.80 29 8
Total 56 1.26

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:

Manager PA SH SH/100 BA OBP SLG
Bud Black 4443 56 1.26 .255 .317 .358
Bruce Bochy 9634 50 0.52 .277 .343 .403
Dick Williams 2930 38 1.30 .309 .360 .402

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:

Team SH SH/100
Mets 80 1.79
Reds 74 1.66
Giants 66 1.49
Rockies 64 1.42
Astros 62 1.42
Padres 56 1.26
NL 883 1.24

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.

* * *

It still drives you crazy, though, right? Leave a comment, send an email (geoff@sonofaduck.com), or hit me up on Twitter (@ducksnorts).

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  • I didn’t see Venable or Cabrera’s bunts this week but — theoretically — another wrinkle to look at would be the hybrid bunt-for-hit or sacrifice. Still not a huge fan of this in the 1st inning, but it does change the dynamics, especially for guys like Everth with speed and no power. On the other hand, what’s wrong with a hit an run?

  • Tom Waits

    Can those numbers be normalized for bunting opportunities instead of plate appearances? It seems as if the Petco-era Padres would have fewer chances to sacrifice than their competitors, because it’s so hard to get on base when we’re at home. That sounds vaguely dirty.

    It might not change Black’s ranking compared to other Padre skippers. The Murph / Qualcomm was pitcher-friendly, too, and he’s up against some true sac bunt believers. But it could change his ranking vs. his contemporaries.

    • Geoff Young

      Good question about bunting opportunities, Tom; let me look into that.

  • MattyIce

    If this were game 81 and we were still doing this, I would agree 100%. I think Buddy is still trying to figure out the lineup. Everth has hit for avg. so sporadically throughout his career, so it kind of makes sense.

    But at the same time I’m sick of playing small ball in EVERY situation… we’ll see if the trend continues.

    • Tom Waits

      He may be trying to figure out his lineup, but he knows everything he needs to know about his starting pitchers. He knows, at least he better know, that one run is unlikely to stand up.

      Maybe he was trying to boost Volquez’s confidence with an early lead. It’s questionable whether the bunt helps you score even one, but it’s a reason with some thinking behind it. Like you say, we can wait to see if it’s a trend.

  • Neal White

    Baseball has been around forever and the game is still waiting for someone to develop an offensive strategy that is better than “See the Ball, Hit the Ball, Run like Hell.”

  • Geoff, again may I say I really apprecite your quality blogs. You write about things I think and feel about as a Padres fan myself, but you actually do the empirical homewok I’m to dumb or lazy to do and cut to the heart of the matter. OK, two things:

    Does playing for that one, lonley, run make more sense at Petco where runs can be scarce, than at say Coors Field, causing me to reach for my Sculpin growler at 1:14 in the afternoon?

    I remember Tony Gwynn being specifically criticized by Jack Clark for being “selfish”, when he would sacrifice rather than hack away. Jack felt Tony was just trying to protect his batting average, putting his numbers above the good of the team. Tony would say, bullshit, he was trained under Dick “close the blinds” Williams and that it was the proper thing to do for the good of the team. It reveals the weakness of their manager (Bowa? Riddoch?) that players could execute their own personal belief rather than a co-ordinated one. Lastly, imagine the luxury of being able to bat Tony Gwynn SECOND in the batting order? Buddy would write his name in third in indellable(?) ink for 162 games before the season starts.

  • I was listening to the radio broad on my GS3 at work yes and Leitner mentioned something about the Internet going crazy after Venable’s sacrifice and claimed it would have been up to Will in that instance.

    Either way, I think your message is getting out there.

  • As Earl Weaver always said, if you play for one run… that’s all you’ll get.