Ron Washington, Sacrifice Bunts, and Adapting

bunts
During the Rangers-Mariners game on Saturday night, the Rangers found themselves down 1-0 against Joe freakin’ Saunders in the 6th inning. Thanks to an error by Seattle’s normally (defensively) incredible shortstop Brendan Ryan, Texas had Leury Garcia and Ian Kinsler at 2nd and 1st base, respectively, with no one out and Elvis Andrus at the plate. Ron Washington then put in the call for Andrus to lay down a sacrifice bunt, which he did successfully. Not surprisingly, the Mariners intentionally walked Adrian Beltre to load the bases and set up the double play possibility, which they got from Nelson Cruz, though the tying run did score prior to the inning-ending play being completed.
At this point, I think it is important to point out several things:

1)      No one had hit the ball better than Elvis to that point in the game, having driven two solid line drives that were caught in the outfield.

2)      Everyone, and I mean everyone, knew the Mariners would walk Beltre to face Cruz.

3)      Joe Saunders is really, really good at inducing double plays (from 2008-11 he averaged 26.5 GIDPs per year).

4)      Leury Garcia and Ian Kinsler are really fast, and really good baserunners.

At this point, you probably already know that I hated the idea of this bunt. It took the bat out of the hands of perhaps the Rangers two best hitters in the lineup that night (Andrus and Beltre), the outcome could have been achieved via a double steal, sacrificed a potential big inning for the sake of getting just one run, and put the golden opportunity of two on and no out in serious jeopardy of being squandered.

So why would Ron Washington call a bunt?

I’m not a supporter of the sacrifice bunt, especially in this instance. There is a lot of data and research that has gone into pointing out that the conventional use of the sacrifice bunt (which Washington often follows) is extremely counterproductive to offensive production. I am very certain that Ron Washington has either never seen this data, or doesn’t believe in its validity as many of us do.

Assuming that Washington doesn’t know the data, I wondered how his past experiences would have guided his management of this situation.

Prior to Saturday’s game, since Washington has been the manager of the Texas Rangers, there have been 12 instances where he called for Andrus to sacrifice bunt that was then followed by an intentional walk. 

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Depending on how sharp Washington’s memory is, you get an idea of why he may think this is a strategy that works. The Rangers had scored at least one run on five of those prior occasions, or a 42% success rate (depending on how you define “success”). The successes probably stand out a lot clearer than the failures, especially when two of the successes were a part of walk-off victories.

But one thing you notice about these five instances where the sacrifice bunt-intentional walk combination was successful is the quality of hitter who delivered the run-scoring hit: early-2010 Vlad, 2011 Young, 2011 Young and Beltre, and 2012 Beltre twice. On Saturday night, that hitter would need to be the 2013 version of Nelson Cruz, who is nowhere near that level of hitter, had already grounded into two double plays this year, and in my opinion is a significant downgrade from Beltre at the plate.

The curious thing about Washington’s decision to employ the sacrifice bunt in this situation is that the math doesn’t completely disagree with it. Take a look at the run expectancy matrices from Tom Tango, referenced here in Lincoln Floyd’s excellent Sacrificial Silliness article on Shutdown Inning. This sacrifice bunt effectively took the Rangers from runners at 1B and 2B with no outs, to bases loaded with one out. Their run expectancy for the inning changed from 1.556 to 1.631, a slight increase. Their expectancy to score one run in the inning moved from 64.3% to 67.9%, also a slight increase. I know Ron Washington didn’t know that, because baseball is played on the field and not in a spreadsheet, but overall the data suggests this wasn’t a totally blown call.

I don’t know if Ron Washington was thinking about his past “success” with having Andrus lay down a sacrifice so the next batter is intentionally walked, or if someone once showed him a run expectancy matrix, but I doubt either of those are the case.

So you can see where there could be an argument to be made for this bunt call. After all, the Rangers went on to win the game, so why does it matter?

It matters because I want to know that Ron Washington is learning and improving at this part of his job. No matter what job you have, if you’re not getting better at it, you’re going to lose it at some point. Every one of these opportunities is like a performance review, and I see him continuing to do what he’s always done, displaying a lack of much-needed development.

If Washington called for this bunt because he didn’t realize Seattle would intentionally walk Beltre, that’s unacceptable. If Washington called for this bunt because he doesn’t think of Andrus as an “RBI guy”, that’s unacceptable. If Washington called for this bunt simply because his old-school baseball roots tell him that it was the right thing to do, regardless of the specifics of the hitters and situation, that’s unacceptable.

I want to see that Ron Washington is realizing that 2013 Elvis isn’t the same hitter as 2010 or 2011 Elvis, and that there were a lot of missed opportunities in 2012 because Washington treated him like his former self. I want to see Ron Washington applying the critical thinking to realize that on this night, Beltre was his best hitter by a long shot, and that it could damage the outcome of the game to take the bat out of his hands like this.

My concern is that Washington will hold on to the success of the team in 2010 and 2011 for too long, and won’t change because he doesn’t want to fix what ain’t broke. Washington was a big part of the success of those clubs, but not because of the way he managed his bench, used the sacrifice bunt, or utilized his bullpen, but in spite of them. Those are still areas that he struggles in today.

I want to see that Washington is learning and adapting to the changing environment he is in, because at some point if you’re not growing, you’re just in the way.

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM

Peter Ellwood

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