PxP: The B-Word

Dickey Pearce was, by all accounts, a man of short stature and strong will. He was also possibly baseball’s first professional player.

He played his first game with Brooklyn Atlantics on September 18th, 1856 and he died exactly 52 years later in Wareham, Massachusetts, spending the most of the time in between these dates playing baseball or being around it. Baseball-Reference holds the stats for only his last few years and judging by those, he was not a very good baseball player. So why would a career of a replacement level player who played a century and a half ago be of any interest today?

Judging from the articles from that era, he was a much better player in his early days. St. Louis Times wrote following about Mr. Pearce on June 30th, 1868:

Pearce has been noted as a superior shortstop for ten years and to-day has no equal in the base ball field. He bats with great judgment and safety…

Indeed, everybody seems to agree that Dickey Pearce was not only an excellent fielder and the best shortstop of his time, but that he was actually the first shortstop to play the game like shortstops have been playing ever since. A game report from May 19th, 1873 shows that he used anything he could to find an edge:

At the Union Grounds in Brooklyn‚ 2‚000 fans are on hand as the Atlantics beat the Quakers‚ 13-11. In the first inning‚ there are two Quakers on base when Malone hits a pop up to Dickey Pearce. Pearce lets the ball hit the ground‚ then throw to 3B for a force and the rely to 2B Jack Burdock completes a DP.

Yes, he forced us to introduce the infield-fly rule, albeit only 22 years later. Dickey Pearce was truly ahead of his time, a baseball pioneer, a man whose defensive prowess and intelligence were groundbreaking. Yet, it was not with the glove, but with the bat that he left the strongest mark, triggering heated discussions centuries later. Dickey Pearce gave baseball the tricky hit. He gave us the bunt.

Some things changed since the time Pearce was making great plays for Atlantics, Brown Stockings and Mutuals. Most notably, if the bunt trickles foul, it is not a base hit anymore. However other things remained and expanded. Hitters still try to trick the defenses by kissing the ball and bunt has evolved from a strictly individual weapon to the one used often as a team one – the dreaded and often discussed sacrifice bunt. Over last five years slightly more than half of the times when a player attempted the bunt the purpose of it was not to advance himself, but a teammate.

But, before we delve into the small balls and moneyballs, let’s tribute the players who use bunt for their personal gain. Let’s give out a Dickey Pearce Award. Now, I asked you to answer the poll before reading the article and I hope you really did, as the bunting prowess of usual suspects is surprising. At least it was to me.

The first leaderboard shows the players who tried to bunt for a base hit most often over last five years*.

* Again the standard PxP caveat – the absolute numbers are wrong. I have honed the parsing script to the point where I can process about 95-97% of the games. Getting to the absolute precision would require the time I am not willing to invest. I found no reason to believe that the omitted games are anything but absolutely random and I treat them as rainouts that have no statistical influence on what I am researching. Of course, it is possible that there are 10 Willy Taveras games missing and that he had two bunt tries in each, making this leaderboard wrong. I guess you will have to live with that.

There is not much surprise here. It’s the well known speedsters who try their luck most often by bunting for a base-hit*. Everybody on this list has good to exceptional speed and they roll the dice often, preferring the odds of a short ground ball to everything else that can happen during the at bat. A bunt try is any PA with at least one bunt attempt, regardless whether it actually led to the ball being put into play via bunt. And as you can see, there are big differences in how successful the players are in actually putting the ball in play when bunting – Joey Gathright is almost twice as good at it as is Chone Figgins, who is actually quite disastrous. Especially for someone who is often praised for his bat control.

* Sometimes it is impossible to know whether the player was bunting for a base hit or for a sacrifice. For the purpose of this exercise I am calling every bunt placed with nobody on base or with two outs in the inning – bunting for a base hit. I am calling any bunt with nobody out and runners on first, second or first and second – sacrifice bunt.

But, doing things often and doing them well is not synonymous, as anyone who ever ate my aunt’s cherry cake can attest. Here is the list of the players with the highest percentage of their bunts ending up being base hits (15 hits minimum):

Wow, Chone Figgins really is a bad bunter – I never realized that. Juan Pierre is also nothing to write home about. Remember a bunt base hit is a single, so when placing the bunt in play both Pierre and Figgins have an OPS of under .700. That is when they actually succeed in putting the bunt in play – the rest of the times they add a strike or two to their count and diminish the chances of success in that at bat.

While a good case could be made for Ichiro (highest success rate) and Taveras (excellent numbers despite bunting often and having the defense play against bunt more aggressively), I am giving the Dickey Pearce Award to Gerald Laird. Here is the guy who is neither fast (career high of 6 SB in a season) nor a power hitter who needs to be respected (career high of 9 HR in a season), yet he lays down bunts and beats them out like if that was a most natural thing. He doesn’t overpower defenses nor does he outrun them. He tricks them and I think Dickey would have liked him.

Enough with that, let there be blood now. Let’s talk about the merits of a sacrifice bunt.

In a close game, runners on first, on second or on first and second with nobody out are situations traditionally considered to be sacrifice situations. And although it seems to happen more often, the managers call for a bunt only about one out of every six times such a situation occurs. And it varies wildly depending on who comes to bat.

Percentage of the times the players are asked to bunt in sacrifice situations, broken down by position.

It goes pretty much along the lines of defensive/offensive fielding positions. A DH is supposed to hit much better than the shortstop, thus asking him to sacrifice is rarely seen. The eyes of any A’s fan are surely glancing towards the 4% mark and then rolling. Yes, Daric Barton beat that mark. By more than a four-fold.

Actually there are only 4 first basemen in last 5 years that placed ten or more bunts in play, regardless of the situation:

Just about the only sacrifice Adrian Gonzalez and Carlos Peña have in mind when they bunt is losing the opportunity to hit a HR. They see the shift and successfully beat it more often than not.

Miguel Cairo is an infielder who just happened to be playing first base. He is also a holder of a career .317 OBA, more than 50 points lower than Barton’s one.

And Daric Barton is, well, Daric Barton.

 

Now, we have already discussed the merits of a sacrifice bunt. We used the run expectancies for the situation before and the situation after, like in this example:

The left part of each box is the situation before the bunt, the right one is the situation after. The red and blue squares are placed around the run expectancies before and after the bunt.

 

There is a problem with that, though. In order to simplify and because we don’t have the necessary data, we just assume that every time a bunt is called, the batter will execute it, be thrown out and that the baserunner(s) will advance one base (each). But, that’s not how it works in real life. I sorted the data for you and this is what happens most often when a bunt is called in a sacrifice situation:

So, what we take for granted, happens only half of the times. Sometimes it turns out better than expected, sometimes worse. Many a times the bunt is never even put in play. What kind of success do the mangers have when they call for the bunt, and what when they roll the dice and go with their hitter? Here’s the answer, and to keep things fair, I excluded the pitchers:

Now, this is not a theory anymore, this is what really happened. When managers called for bunt and their players successfully obliged, it made things worse. It made it even worse when they failed to do so, especially when they bunted foul twice (green and purple bars). The differences are the biggest with the runner on first. So every time Daric Barton, he of .393 OBP in 2010, bunts with runner on first in the first inning a puppy indeed gets killed, no matter whose idea it was.

* * *

The last note on Dickey Pearce came from 1890 when the 54-year old was “said to be doing an excellent job as groundskeeper for the Brooklyn PL team.” It was only two years after he had played his last game, the event that The New York Times described like this:

Once a ballplayer, always a ballplayer. Rest in peace, Mister Pearce and thank you for giving us something to talk about in 2010.

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