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With the universal DH coming, say goodbye to the sacrifice bunt and intentional walk

Old-fashioned MLB strategies are going to be a thing of the past.

Kyle Hendricks lays down a bunt
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

We don’t yet have a completed collective bargaining agreement between MLB owners and players, but one thing we do know: The universal DH will be in effect for all Major League Baseball games — whenever those get played. So let’s talk about something non-lockout related today.

The headline of this article tells you what I’m going to lay out for you in greater detail: Two longtime strategies, the sacrifice bunt and the intentional walk, are going to go the way of the proverbial dinosaur. I’d guess within a fairly short time neither one of these will be used on a regular basis.

Let’s take a look at the numbers. First, these two things have been declining in use anyway in MLB over the last decade or so. (I’m leaving the 2020 season out of this because of its length and the use of the universal DH that year.)

Sacrifice bunts, National League

2010: 1006
2011: 1137
2012: 1024
2013: 920
2014: 866
2015: 747
2016: 675
2017: 653
2018: 564
2019: 531
2021: 536

Sacrifice bunts, American League

2010: 538
2011: 530
2012: 455
2013: 463
2014: 457
2015: 453
2016: 350
2017: 272
2018: 259
2019: 245
2021: 230

As you can see, over the last decade or so, the total number of sac bunts has dropped by about 50 percent in the NL and more than that in the AL. Without going through a game-by-game list, I would guess that a large number of the AL sac bunts are in interleague games in NL parks where pitchers would have batted. Further, in general pitchers have had far fewer plate appearances as the years have gone by. In 2010, MLB pitchers combined for 6,002 plate appearances, but in 2021 that had dropped to 4,829, about a 20 percent reduction.

Sacrifice bunts were going away in general because teams realized that in many cases, giving up an out wasn’t worth it in terms of increasing run scoring probability, even with gaining a base from a successful sacrifice.

Now let’s look at the intentional walk numbers over the same period, again excluding 2020 due to the length of the pandemic-shortened season. I’ve done this by pitcher; the same list with IBB drawn by hitters have slightly larger numbers, but not enough to make a real statistical difference (it’s about 1-2 percent):

Intentional walks issued by National League pitchers

2010: 763
2011: 766
2012: 613
2013: 566
2014: 523
2015: 560
2016: 600
2017: 588
2018: 610
2019: 482
2021: 471

Intentional walks issued by American League pitchers

2010: 453
2011: 465
2012: 442
2013: 452
2014: 462
2015: 391
2016: 332
2017: 382
2018: 319
2019: 271
2021: 232

Again, the AL used this strategy far less than in the NL, and the reason is obvious: In the AL, there isn’t a weak-hitting pitcher coming to bat for whom you’d want to avoid a better hitter hitting in front of him. By 2021, the number of IBB by AL pitchers was half as many as for NL pitchers.

With a universal DH and thus no pitchers batting, along with MLB pushing the idea of getting more balls in play, it would seem to me that these strategies would eventually die out almost completely. Just to give you an idea of what happens with a universal DH, in 2020 there were 126 sacrifice bunts and 202 intentional walks in a total of 898 games. That would extrapolate to 341 sacrifices and 547 IBB in a full regular season of 2,430 games, about 45 percent of the 2021 sac bunt number and 77 percent of the 2021 intentional walk total.

Of course, there could still be some use for bunting if a team wants to try to squeeze a run home and the IBB might have some usefulness in, say, the bottom of the ninth of a tie game where a team might want to set up a force at every base.

But in general, I think these two things will mostly be a part of baseball’s past when the universal DH goes into effect.