Incentives in Sports, Part 2

sacrifice bunt
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Last year I wrote about situations where NBA and NFL coaches call more conservative plays than the odds would dictate. Today there’s a good article about the baseball equivalent: the sacrifice bunt.

Why do managers call for so many bunts with no outs and a runner on first, when the stats show that it lowers your expected runs scored?

Most sacrifice bunts occur when there’s a runner on first with no outs. In those situations the average offense will go on to score 0.783 runs. Let’s say a sacrifice bunt in that situation is successful … Now you have a runner on second and one out. The average offense with a runner on second and one out scores 0.699 runs. The run expectancy has decreased thanks to the sacrifice bunt.

run expectancies

Well, I’m not sure those stats go into enough detail to resolve the question. You’d have to know what led up to each situation, for one thing, and where you are in the batting order. Sacrifice plays are not called at random; there are a lot of potential confounding variables.

Also, the expected runs scored may not always be the right metric; sacrifices are more common in one-run games in the late innings, where you’d rather maximize your chances of scoring a single run than maximize the total number of runs scored.

But let’s concede for the sake of argument that managers like Dusty Baker are costing their team wins in the long run by bunting too often. Which seems especially likely given that the gap in expected runs has more than doubled in the modern higher-scoring game. Does that fit with my argument in the previous post? Not really.

To recap: the two complaints I talked about were NFL coaches punting too often on fourth downs and NBA coaches not calling for enough three-pointers at the end of close games. In both cases, observers tend to look for the “irrationality” in the coach’s head; I thought it might be a fan preference for minimizing regret, one that interfered at the margin with our preference for maximizing victories.

This doesn’t usually apply in this situation. If a team has a man on first with no outs, doesn’t bunt him to second, and doesn’t score, I don’t usually think “if only they’d bunted.” So I guess we can blame this one on the old-fashioned managers:

…for these reasons of history, psychology, and nerd-hating-ology, the bunt endures, like a cockroach crawling around baseball’s basement, even as other relatively new practices … become uncontroversial. At this point, after all we’ve learned over the past 30 years, calling for the sacrifice bunt feels like muscle memory more than anything else.

What does trigger more regret in baseball, at least for me, is being caught stealing. So you’d think that according to my theory managers might steal fewer bases than is optimal. But I gather that the Moneyball types think that most teams steal more than they should. So … who knows. I guess this is why I’m not a sports pundit.