I recently posted on Facebook that I was frustrated because Jim Leyland, manager of the Detroit Tigers, always (well, frequently) seems to call for a bunt when the lead-off batter reaches first base. There were two comments.
- a former student, knowledgeable about Moneyball, said, "it's called 'manufacturing runs'". I think he was jerking my chain.
- a friend from many years ago posted that he thinks Leyland doesn't bunt enough. I clearly disagree.
The source of my frustration with Leyland's tactic (which is well-known) is the overwhelming evidence that the average number of runs scored in an inning is higher when there is a runner on first with no outs than when there is a runner on second with one out. Put differently, teams are more likely, on average, to score more runs if they don't bunt!
Yes, there will be times when the batter at the plate grounds or lines into a double play or strikes out, and yes, there are some batters who are so bad that you'd rather have them bunt than strike out or ground into a double-play (which is why it often makes sense to have pitchers bunt in the National League). But overall, roughly speaking, in general, you're more likely to score more runs by NOT bunting than by bunting.
I can readily imagine that the probability of scoring at least one run goes up when a team follows the bunt strategy, but the main times that is important occur late in a game when the team needs one run to tie or go ahead. It doesn't make sense to reduce the probability of having bigger innings earlier in a game.
Leyland is clearly a bright and good manager. But this is one aspect of his game where it might be nice if he read more MoneyBall or Bill James or Baseball Prospectus material.