Last February, I posted this article indicating that I thought that with the universal DH coming to MLB in 2022, the use of strategies like the sacrifice bunt and intentional walk would begin to disappear from baseball. A followup article in April seemed to confirm that hypothesis.
Now, we have a full season’s worth of data that shows that indeed, these two parts of baseball are falling out of favor with managers. First, let’s look at the sac bunt. Here are the numbers of sac bunts across all of MLB since 2010 (except for the shortened 2020 season):
Even before 2022, the use of the sacrifice had begun to decline. There are, I think, a couple of reasons:
- Managers had discovered that giving up an out wasn’t really increasing run expectancy, and
- Pitchers were getting fewer plate appearances, since starters were not going as deep into games. In 2010, the first year I have in that chart, MLB pitchers had 6,002 PA. In 2021, the last year pitchers batted, they had just 4,829, a decline of about 20 percent.
Pitchers accounted for 421 of the 766 sacrifices in 2021, leaving 345 for position players. That means position player sacrifices actually went up a bit in 2022, but I will predict now that this figure will continue to drop.
Because about half the teams have essentially stopped using them. Of the 30 MLB teams, 14 of them had 10 or fewer sac bunts in 2022, which amounts to about one every two weeks. The Braves had just one — and they had none until the second-to-last day of the season, when Michael Harris did this with two runners on in the fourth inning [VIDEO].
Chip Caray sounds a bit bemused about the whole thing. It didn’t work — that was followed by a strikeout, an intentional walk (! — I’ll get to those) and another strikeout, though the Braves did win the game.
The run expectancy chart in this Fangraphs article shows that the expected runs scored with runners on first and second with nobody out compared to having runners on second and third with one out is almost identical. Analytics guys in front offices obviously know this, and that’s probably the main reason we’re seeing fewer bunts. I believe we’ll see even fewer as the years go by.
The Cubs had 19 sac bunts in 2022, a bit above the league average of 13. P.J. Higgins, Christopher Morel and Andrelton Simmons tied for the team lead with three.
Now let’s look at intentional walks:
These also began to drop in the early 2010s, but then leveled off. Something that I expected to happen, but didn’t, was a drop in IBB after the automatic intentional walk was made a thing for the 2017 season. Instead, it took two more years for a significant drop, not until 2019.
I’m not exactly sure why this happened — eighth-place hitters, those most likely to bat in front of pitchers, had about the same number of IBB in 2019 as in 2018, and pitcher plate appearances were likewise about the same.
It does seem as if MLB managers (and analytics guys) figured that it wasn’t that great an idea to put an extra runner on base, and that showed up even further in 2022. Eighth-place hitters — again, those most likely to bat in front of pitchers — had 162 IBB in 2021, but only 29 in 2022.
That accounts for only part of the 33 percent drop in IBB from 2021-22, 228 fewer.
It just seems to me that managers and analytics departments have decided that these two strategies aren’t worth it.
Now, I know what those of you lamenting the alleged loss of strategy due the universal DH are going to say: “But this takes all the strategy out of the game!”
No... it doesn’t, really it doesn’t. With starting pitchers not going deep into games anymore, the use of pinch-hitters had gone up before the universal DH. In 2011, there were 5,205 plate appearances by pinch-hitters; in 2021, that number had risen more than 10 percent, to 5,873. (Granted that not all PH appearances pre-2022 were for pitchers.) Further, in recent years when a pitcher DID come to bat in the middle innings with a runner on, it wasn’t “strategy” to have him bunt, it was by-the-book. So was issuing an intentional walk with first base open and the pitcher coming to bat.
For more I would suggest you read Craig Calcaterra’s magnum opus on the universal DH from a couple of years ago, which said, in part:
... a starting pitcher hits for himself 93% of his time or higher until [the] fifth inning, so managers are not doing much thinking about his place in the lineup at all early on. They still bat for themselves 80% if they’ve made it to the fifth inning. In the sixth inning they bat for themselves 48% of the time, so yes, in that instance managers are truly making a judgment call. After that, however, they basically go to a pinch-hitter automatically. As a result, adding a DH to NL contests means removing one (1) decision from the game on average, and that’s in the sixth inning.
But even that dynamic is likely on the downswing. These days teams carry 12 or 13 pitchers and, in this odd 2020 season and likely in the future, rosters will be expanded to allow teams carry even more pitchers. Between that and the rise of the opener and bullpenning strategies, relief pitchers are becoming more and more important all the time. All of those pitching changes means that there will be even fewer strategic calls. When the ninth hole comes up, bam, a pinch hitter will come in, making it functionally as if you have a DH anyway. The “should I or shouldn’t I?!” conundrum of a manager is quickly becoming a thing of the past.
But even if it wasn’t, the “strategy” the NL game allegedly employs is overrated. It’s not about adding an exciting element of the game. It’s about dealing with the fact that “hey, our pitcher sucks as a hitter” and mitigating that bad thing. Maybe negativity avoidance is your bag, but as a strategic concern it’s something less-than-inspiring to me.
Personally, I think this makes for better baseball, and it’s clear (to me, anyway) that the universal DH provides better entertainment. Did you really enjoy watching Kyle Hendricks go 6-for-52 with 26 strikeouts in 2021? (I sure didn’t.)
(Spare me the “obligatory Bartolo Colon HR video,” please. Entertaining? Yes, granted and stipulated. What wasn’t entertaining were the 166 strikeouts in 299 career AB from Colon and a lifetime .084 BA. He was a terrible hitter who got lucky... once.)
The bottom line is that the universal designated hitter has significantly reduced sacrifice bunts and intentional walks and the use of those is likely going to continue to decline.
And I think baseball is better off for it.