Nobody would confuse the Red Sox effort last night with the great offensive performances of the age, but as most teams that lose by a single run do, they had their shots. There is always the random display of power, something it seems we've not seen enough of this year from the Red Sox, but beyond that, Boston's best shot to tie the game came in the seventh inning.
After an Adrian Gonzalez single, Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled as well putting runners on first and second. The score was 2-1 and with the inning numbers getting higher, the Red Sox chances were dwindling. It was at this point that Bobby Valentine chose to interject himself into the game.
He made two moves. First, he removed Adrian Gonzalez and put in pinch runner Scot Podsednik. Podsednik runs about twice as fast as Gonzalez. Seriously. If Podsednik started at home plate and Gonzalez started at second they'd probably reach home at about the same time. As the run that the Red Sox needed to not lose the game, putting Podsednik in for Gonzalez at least made sense.
Second, he asked the batter, Darnell McDonald, to sacrifice bunt. That, to put it bluntly, did not.
I'll be upfront and admit that I have a strong aversion to bunting. It's weak baseball and it's not the way I like to see the game played. But I'm more than willing to concede that sometimes bunting is a smart play. Not often, but sometimes. And sometimes it's at least not a net negative. But many of the times it's employed, it doesn't help the team it purports to, and yet mangers keep doing it. The Red Sox now lead the American League in sacrifice bunts with 15. For this offense that is second in the American League in runs scored that is simply way too many.
But let's get back to last night's game. So, Podsednik is pinch running for Gonzalez at second base and Salty is at first. There are not outs, it's the seventh inning and the Red Sox are down by one run. According to the run matrix at Baseball Prospectus, on average, teams scored 1.43 runs in that situation. (I'm using 2011 numbers for this exercise.) That's on average meaning many teams scored more and many scored less. But in this specific instance, without any interference from the dugout the Red Sox will at least tie the game more times than not. But Bobby Valentine had Darnell McDonald bunt anyway.
So as McDonald gets the sign, let's quickly run down some of the different outcomes here.
1. McDonald could be successful. The Red Sox were sitting at an expected 1.43 runs scored. If McDonald successfully sacrificed the runners to second and third and was thrown out at first, the average team could expect to score 1.29 runs. Yes, that's a decrease. Why? Because the out is much more valuable than moving one runner from first to third (first and second to second and third). And that's the Red Sox best case scenario.
2. McDonald isn't successful and the lead runner is thrown out. If that happens the Red Sox run expectation drops from 1.43 to 0.89. McDonald has thirteen successful sacrifice bunts in his career including last night's so while he was successful, it was not a foregone conclusion that he would be.
3. McDonald isn't successful, fouls off two bunts, and gets down in the count 0-2. In his career, McDonald hits .193/.192/.385 when the count is 0-2 compared to a career .246/.311/.396 line. That's a pretty significant decrease and it isn't abnormal either. When the count favors the pitcher, the batter is at an extreme disadvantage.
So in future similar situations, we're not talking about a straight choice of second and third with one out versus first and second and no outs. Other negative outcomes are possible. But even if you ignore those negative outcomes and just look at the numbers, bunting in that situation is a bad move on average.
Of course I'm talking averages here and we've got a situation that has specifics. So, McDonald did get the bunt down, what happened? Marlon Byrd was left with the most important at-bat of the ball game. A fly ball ties it, but Byrd, because he's just not that good at baseball, struck out on four pitches. Then Mike Aviles and his hideous .285 on-base percentage were left to get a hit*. The numbers are against you at that point and predictably Aviles popped out.
* A side note: why is Mike Aviles still leading off? I don't care what side of the plate he hits from, the guy doesn't get on base. He's having a fine year in the field and hitting for power and as a stopgap at shortstop that's fine. Good even, but he has no business hitting in the top of this lineup. None. OK, rant over.
The Red Sox had their scoring opportunity at the unfortunate point where the worst three hitters in their lineup (8, 9, 1) were due up. By bunting, Valentine gave up a precious out that, when dealing with the lineup's lesser lights, the team would likely desperately need.
Of course, Valentine could have pinch hit for Byrd with either Daniel Nava or Ryan Sweeney. Both would have been much better options than having Byrd get the game's most important at-bat. But even if he did pinch hit (he should have pinch hit) the bunt still served to weaken the Red Sox scoring chances and hurt their chances of winning.
Mostly the thing that irritates me about bunting is that it's playing not to lose. With any team that's true, but it's especially so with a team like the Red Sox. The potential for a big inning with this offense always exists. You never know when the team will strike. But it's difficult to strike when the manager is giving outs away. I believe it was Bill James who once said that the beauty of baseball was that before three outs anything was possible. After three outs nothing was. It's something the Red Sox would do well to remember going forward.