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The politics of bunting

Tyler Austin isn’t on the roster to bunt, so why did he have to?

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Jacob emailed me this morning to ask if we’d examine Bruce Bochy’s decision to bunt with Tyler Austin last night. So, here it goes (Sorry, Jacob. This isn’t good):

The Giants lost last night’s games for two reasons:

(1) the Los Angeles Dodgers are much better than the Giants. Although the Giants have played them tough — tougher than the rest of the NL West — and they had their best pitcher on the mound — who has, typically, not been a complete mess against them — the “on paper” matchup easily favored them. This was always out of the Giants’ control. An unavoidable problem.

(2) Bruce Bochy had Tyler Austin bunt with two on and no outs in the ninth inning after the Giants had already scored four runs and with Kenley Jansen struggling with velocity and command. That led to a “who cares? I’m tired” replay review in New York that totally boned the Giants:

The standing rule is that it’s only an out once the ball hits the “heel” of the glove and that in order to overturn a call on the field the replay has to be conclusive. The post-game coverage focused on the interpretation of the video replay, but it probably should’ve been on the bunt.

This problem was well within the Giants’ control and completely avoidable. All Bruce Bochy had to do was not call for a bunt. Had Tyler Austin not bunted, the Giants probably still would’ve lost the game because of reason 1, but if they had not bunted, there would not have been a second reason for the loss.

Bruce Bochy’s fear was that with runners at first and second and no outs that Tyler Austin would ground into a double play that would kill the Giants’ scoring chances. Get Stephen Vogt to third and Joe Panik to second and he’d be in a position for his best hitters to get a ball in the air for a sac fly or a hit up the middle to score two runs.

That’s understanding his team’s skill set, sure, although it doesn’t entirely take into consideration the physical state of Buster Posey and Brandon Belt, a matter I’ll talk about in a moment. For now, it’s enough to know the following:

  • Kenley Jansen did not look like Kenley Jansen (91-92 mph with his fastball and cutter)
  • Tyler Austin has grounded into a double play just six times in his major league career (1.2% of his plate appearances)
  • Also:

Now, Bochy’s thinking here was that Austin is weaker on the right side, and a cutter or slider away — where Austin has been noticeably vulnerable — would lead to soft contact and a double play. Like this:

It had to be this reason (not this exact play, but the fear of something exactly like it), because just the night before he watched Austin do this against a right-handed pitcher:

Yimi Garcia pumped a 93 mph fastball tailing away but at the letters. What if Jansen righted himself for one perfect pitch and got the ball down at the belt or the knees, and Austin did what he’s done just six times in his major league career?

That’s a lot of presumption. The data suggests a double play was unlikely. Here’s Austin’s results for his major league career on cutters thrown between 90-93 mph.

But I don’t expect a manager to have this data in mind in a situation like this. I might not even expect a manager to know that righties have been slightly better versus Jansen this season than lefties — I’d assume Bochy just considers Jansen tough all the way around, which makes sense. I would have expected Austin’s home run from the other night to be much more of a factor in his thinking, however. Maybe it was, but we’ll never know — nobody asked him about his decision to bunt. Instead, the focus was on the (probably) botched replay review.

Bochy probably doesn’t feel comfortable enough with Austin to presume that a double play was unlikely. Just as likely: he knew that Buster Posey was a fine double play candidate and wanted to avoid an Austin strikeout-Posey GIDP to end the game. That was definitely a likely scenario. For that reason, there’s a basis for the bunt.

On the other hand, let’s consider all the possibilities at play:

  • Austin strikes out
  • Austin grounds/lines into a double play
  • Austin flies out, advancing no runners
  • Austin homers
  • Austin gets on base (walk, hit by pitch, single)
  • Austin hits a double, scoring both runners
  • Austin lays down a successful bunt, so there’s now one out with runners at 2nd and 3rd
  • Austin lays down an unsuccessful bunt, so there’s runners at 1st and 2nd with one out
  • Austin bunts or hits into a triple play

Now let’s just look at the bad options:

  • Strikeout
  • Unsuccessful bunt
  • Fly out that advances no runners
  • Double play
  • Triple play

Five of the nine possibilities all involved losing an out, so he chose the least painful out that would still advance the runners.

That’s the “on paper” reasoning, but the “in the field” reality was this: Bruce Bochy found himself in a familiar situation with an unfamiliar player at the plate. He felt more comfortable putting a player in an unfamiliar situation that went against the player’s abilities and tendencies (38% fly ball rate — league average is 35%) than letting the roster do what it was designed to do. Tyler Austin is a flyball power hitter who, while not fantastic against right handed pitching, traditionally, is playing more against right handed pitching specifically so that the Giants can see if there’s all around talent to unlock there.

Letting a player play to see what he’s got is an elegant solution to resolving the long-term problem of the Giants’ lack of talent. Instead, we got the ugly grunt of a bunt, because of baseball orthodoxy: put as many runners in scoring position as you can and leave it up to your two best hitters. That thinking can work, but there’s an inelegance in orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy doesn’t change with the times. It stays fixed. That means it ages until it’s hard to look at and nobody remembers how it got there in the first place. I don’t like bunts. Maybe most of you don’t like bunts, either, and that was a straw man I created at the top of the piece. There’s clearly an emotionless argument to be made for bunting in that situation, but isn’t that argument diminished by the presence of an inexperienced bunter?

Buster Posey hasn’t been himself this season. A concussion and hamstring injury following hip surgery will do that to any baseball player, but especially a catcher. Brandon Belt’s timing has looked off for well over a week now. Both of them managed to drive the ball to the outfield because, again, Kenley Jansen wasn’t looking so hot and his pitches were very hittable, but it’s really hard to have watched the same game and come to a different conclusion. Posey and Belt are not the same players they once were. Tyler Austin had just as good a chance of hitting the ball hard and a better chance of not hitting into a double play.

I’m a dingus blogger who’s not in the trenches. Anyone can take pot shots at a manager. I’ve watched a lot of baseball, but I’ve never managed a game. Maybe making players who never bunt bunt is a power move that all managers have to flex. Maybe all baseball players are expected to be 100% ready to do anything required by a baseball player on a baseball field at any given time. Maybe the idea of putting players in the best position to succeed is a mantra up until the ninth inning. I don’t know because, again, dingus blogger.

All I know is that this is Bruce Bochy’s final year managing the Giants, so he can do whatever he wants.