Endy Chavez stepped up to the plate last night for the Mariners with runners at the corners and two out, down 5-3 in the top of the 9th. As Huston Street came to the plate, Chavez squared to bunt and then pulled back for strike one. Hoping that it was a clever ruse, I held my judgment. Then he squared around again on the second pitch, affirming that it was, indeed, no hoax. He pulled back again and took strike two. As a side note, he swung and missed at pitch four. Game over.
Some may argue that a bunt could catch the defense off guard, just like Jake Taylor did in Major League. Fair enough, it could. While there are no available stats for successful bunt-base hit percentages, Baseball Reference‘s statistics tell us that only about 2/3 of all sacrifice attempts are successful. Chavez is no different, averaging about 70% over his career. This percentage does not even account for the times that he attempted to bunt early in the at bat, then was forced to swing away at a disadvantageous two-strike count.
Endy’s bunting strategy did not bode well for his chances of getting on base, but let’s give him generous 30% odds. Indeed, 12% of his major league hits are bunts. Therefore the expected value of the bunt to his team was a 30% chance of scoring the insignificant run from third leaving runners on 1st and 2nd for Jose Lopez, and a 70% chance of ending the game.
Looking at the alternative, let’s assume for a moment that Chavez tried to swing away last night. He had never faced Street before, so we have to predict the result from a combination of Street’s and Endy’s split stats. His chances for a homer were slim, though in Coors field let’s give him 1%. The chances of a double or a triple, which would likely score the tying run from first, were about 5%, and finally the likelihood of a walk or single — putting the tying run into scoring position as the bunt would presumably do — was about 24%. Chavez still faced an estimated 70% chance of ending the game, but with a (approximate) 6%-chance of tying or winning the game, to go along with a 24% chance of fulfilling the job of the bunt, it seems that swinging away would have given the Ms a better chance to win.
While we’re only talking about 5 or 6 percent points here, in 50 close-game decisions any team could turn 2 or 3 losses into 2 or 3 wins with a little strategery.