Lucas Duda: Sabermagician?

In the eighth inning of last night’s game, Lucas Duda dropped down the elusive cleanup-hitter sacrifice, a play rarely observed in the wild, advancing the tying and go-ahead runs to second and third with one out. Both runners eventually came around to score and the Mets defeated the Padres 5-4 to climb over the .500 mark yet again. The slugger sacrifice bunt, a mortal sin in sabermetrics, led the Moneyball Mets to another victory. Put briefly, it was weird.

Full disclosure: On TV after the game, manager Terry Collins credited the idea for the bunt to Duda. I include this detail so we know whom to credit or blame or feel a general indifference towards.

All right, here’s the thing: If the Mets had lost this game – if the Padres’ Josh Spence had been able to retire Nick Evans and Ruben Tejada and then Heath Bell held the lead in the ninth – this, the bunt, would have been the play people pointed out with anger. There would be talk about how the sacrifice is a dubious strategy to begin with, how trading outs for bases is not an efficient trade-off. How your cleanup hitter, of all people, should never be bunting. After all, Bill James, in his half-serious “The Ten Commandments of Sabermetrics,” lists “Thou shalt not bunt” as the first commandment. Much in the way OPS and on-base percentage have permeated casual baseball fandom, a healthy dislike of the sacrifice seems to have slowly worked its way into the mainstream. Bunting, much like cigarettes, bloodletting and being a character in a Coen Brothers’ film, has been proven hazardous to one’s health.

But . . . and please don’t take away my abacus . . . Lucas Duda’s bunt in the eighth inning was the right play. There are times and places when bunts are the percentage play. There are not as many as some managers seem to think. But they do exist, and last night was one of them.

When Duda came to the plate – eighth inning, with the Mets down one at home with runners on first and second – they had a 51.8% chance of winning the game according to Fangraphs. (That is, the Mets had a 51.8% chance of winning the game in a vacuum, if we ignore the quality of the teams, pitchers and batters.) After the Duda’s sacrifice bunt, the Mets’ chance of winning the game went up to 53.1%, a 1.3% increase. So on a basic level, Duda executed the percentage play.

But there are other factors to consider besides “if it works, is it worth it?” Because it might not work. The bunt could get popped up, or a runner could be thrown out at third or at second, or Duda could just fail to get it down and strike out. Those are risks to consider. On the other hand, the bunt could also be botched by the defense, thrown away or thrown to the wrong base and everyone winds up safe. An UFO could interrupt the play on the field and startle the defense, which, according to movies I saw as a child, isn’t all that uncommon during baseball games. Or maybe it’d just be more advantageous to have your cleanup hitter swing away. After all, he is the cleanup hitter for a reason. All these other factors play into figuring out if bunting is the percentage play last night.

But it seems to me that all these other factors played into the Mets’ eager-to-sacrifice hands. The pitcher-batter matchup made bunting more attractive, for one. The pitcher, lefty Josh Spence, had a 0.45 ERA in the majors and a 2.14 ERA in the minors, and is particularly tough on lefthanded hitters like Duda, generating a lot of strikeouts and ground balls. For his part, Duda hasn’t shown any great ability against lefthanded pitching in his young career.

Here are some numbers:

  • three, seven, 19 million, pi, 11

And here are some other numbers in a relevant context:

  • Spence against lefthanded hitters in 2011: .125/.125/.200, 15 strikeouts, no walks, one home run
  • Duda against lefthanded pitchers, ML career: .190/.227/.310, 13 strikeouts, two walks, no home runs

Neither player has been around all that long, so take this for what you will. But any advantage gained by Duda swinging away against Spence seems minimal at best, making the bunt a better play in that situation.

Then consider that the Padres clearly weren’t looking for a bunt, and they had a rookie pitcher on the mound (Spence) and a third basemen (James Darnell) playing his first big league game – and if you must bunt, you want to bunt it at the guys who are going to be really, really surprised by what’s just happened. If Duda had pushed it just a bit harder, where the catcher couldn’t get it, he might have beat it out. Lucas Duda, the guy whose top speed is “lumbering,” might have beat out a sac bunt. The element of surprise, and the positioning and inexperience of the Padres infield tilted the odds even more towards the Mets on the play.

And then consider that it was a game being played in Citi Field, against the Padres’ up-until-now tough bullpen, with the Mets using their Wright-and-whatever lineup. That’s not exactly an environment that encourages a lot of run scoring, making one or two runs even more valuable in context.

To be fair, Duda’s abilities as a bunter are questionable – he had just one sacrifice before this, in Double-A two years ago – and if he misses the first attempt, the element of surprise goes out the window. So he really only had one shot to make it work. I certainly hope Terry Collins and Duda would have called it off after a botched first attempt.

But all the other factors were pointing towards the Mets bunting. The park, the score, the inning, the runners, the pitcher, the positioning of the infield and the experience of the third baseman. All that stuff was pro-bunt, and that matters for figuring out when to bunt.

As conditioned as many of us are to dislike bunting – and it has been proven a generally counterproductive strategy – that was a pretty good spot for Lucas Duda to lay one down. All things considered, the odds were in the Mets’ favor: Duda’s successful sacrifice increased the Mets’ chances of winning the game, moved two runners into scoring position, kept them out of the double play, and set up a couple of lefty-on-righty matchups in their favor that ultimately paid off. Plus, the chance of the play turning into a disaster for the Padres seemed to be higher than the chance of the play turning into a disaster for the Mets.

Most times, bunting is stupid and antiquated and the result of institutional inertia. We should shutter at such thoughts in any field. But sometimes it is the right play. Lucas Duda picked a good spot for a bunt last night, and it helped the Mets win a game.

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5 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

5 responses to “Lucas Duda: Sabermagician?

  1. Good analysis. The problem with Sabrmetrics is that it only considers the average situation and ignores that no situation is average.

    • Patrick Flood

      I half agree with you. Bad sabermetrics always does that. Good sabermetrics takes into account the situations when needed.

  2. This is deep in the wilds of game theory – sometimes the sup-optimal play is smarter. You can’t always assume optimal play from your opponents; you can also force them to play sub-optimally by making them defend your sub-optimal options. “Keeping them honest,” as the old baseball saying goes.

    And then consider that it was a game being played in Citi Field, against the Padres’ up-until-now tough bullpen, with the Mets using their Wright-and-whatever lineup. That’s not exactly an environment that encourages a lot of run scoring, making one or two runs even more valuable in context.

    EXACTLY. As you observed, bunts and one-run strategies were much more valuable when you only got three or four runs a game; when you get five or six those become wasted opportunities. Last night was sort of a throwback situation… which of course won’t stop the commentariat from lavishing old-timey Base-Ball “playing the right way” praise on Duda. Right, but for the wrong reasons.

    • Patrick Flood

      Yes, exactly. Bunting has gotten such a bad rap because it’s usually a sub-optimal play. But it’s worth doing anyway sometimes because it forces the defense to play out of position and defend against the bunt. If the third baseman is playing in all the time in bunt situations, sometimes a well hit ball he would otherwise field will sneak past him. And that’s where the value of the earlier bunt comes from. Keeping them honest is important, and I actually think Terry Collins has done a good job with that this season.

  3. Plus, after Duda you had three of your biggest lefty mashers coming up to the plate. I’m surprised the Pads left Spence in to face them.

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