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Bunt didn't work, but sacrifice was justified for Farrell and Red Sox

Posted by David D'Onofrio  September 3, 2013 10:00 AM

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It didn't work, and thus made for another missed opportunity, on an afternoon where those seemed the themes of the Red Sox offense.

Down 2-0 in Monday's seventh inning, with two men on and nobody out, Jarrod Saltalamacchia was asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt -- but he left his attempt in a spot where catcher Alex Avila could spring up and eliminate Daniel Nava at third. It wasted an out at a point in the game where those were particularly precious, and subsequently the Sox failed to score in the inning. Or the game.

Clearly, it didn't work. And it stuck out as a curious decision, particularly given that Saltalamacchia ranks among the American League leaders in doubles. But based on the success his team has had with that strategy this season, it was a justifiable decision made by John Farrell to put the play on.

Generally, sacrifice bunting is a flawed strategy and the Red Sox are particularly reluctant to give up an out, as evidenced by the fact they'd done so fewer than all but one AL team, as of Monday. However, they have had some success with the decision to do so this season.

Now, there's no way of telling how these at-bats or innings would've played out had the Sox let their hitter swing away. Perhaps some of them would've exploded into a big, crooked number. Perhaps the bunter would've advanced the runner anyway. Or perhaps he would've hit into a double play. There's no way to know what might've happened -- only what did happen.

And in 14 of the 18 instances where the Sox have executed a sacrifice bunt this season, they scored later that inning.

2013 - Sox bunts.xlsx

Looking at that history, it's worth giving details on the four times getting a bunt down hasn't rendered a run: one was with John Lackey at bat and one out -- so the bunt was called not necessarily for strategic advantage, but more because it was the obvious choice with a pitcher batting; one saw the threat thwarted when Brandon Snyder was thrown out at the plate trying to score on a flyball to the outfield; and the other two came with lefty-vulnerable Stephen Drew as the next hitter and a quality lefty (Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson) on the mound.

It's also worth pointing out that all three times the Sox have successfully executed a sac bunt with men on first and second with nobody out -- exactly the situation Saltalamacchia squared in -- they've scored. And in two of three instances, they've scored two runs. Those are among the six instances where the sacrifice hasn't stopped the Sox from scoring multiple runs.

Eleven times the Sox have put down a bunt when tied or trailing, and seven times they've finished that inning with a lead. Another time they came from a run down to even the score.

Again, it's impossible to know how these innings would've turned out otherwise, and 18 instances is certainly way too small a sample size upon which to base an opinion -- so this isn't offered as a judgment of whether Farrell was right or wrong to choose this course of action. It's merely to say that along the way to an 82-56 record, and a 5.5-game atop the American League East, the sacrifice bunt has served his team well. He might've been ill-advised in asking it of a guy who hasn't successfully sacrificed since 2009, especially in a situation where the defense had to be expecting the possibility. But the choice itself was completely justified.

Even if the execution, and thus the outcome, ultimately didn't work out.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE
Tigers 3, Red Sox 0
Hitters
6-for-30, 4 BB, 7 K, 3 2B
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF 0-for-3, BB, K: His 46th walk of the season moves him within six of the career high he set in 2011.
Shane Victorino, RF 1-for-3, K: Victorino's mere participation was encouraging enough, as he returned a day after leaving with a hip contusion.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 1-for-4, 2B: He hit into two double plays, setting a new career high with 20, and moving up to third-most in the AL this season. He's never before finished a season in the top 10 of that category.
David Ortiz, DH 0-for-4, K: Although Pedroia hit into a couple of twin killings ahead of him, he still got two cracks with a runner in scoring position -- but grounded to first and struck out.
Daniel Nava, LF 3-for-3, BB, 2 2B: Nava's remarkable season continues, buoyed by his post-paternity leave brilliance. He's now hitting .300 with the AL's fifth-best on-base percentage (.387), and if he can maintain those numbers while getting at least 56 more plate appearances, he could finish the year in the AL's top 10 in both categories.
Mike Napoli, 1B 0-for-2, 2 BB, K: The two walks gave Napoli four in his last three games. He had that many in his previous 14 games.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C 0-for-4, K: He's now hitless in his last four starts, going 0-for-14 therein. Farrell acknowledged that was a factor in the decision to ask him to bunt, too.
Stephen Drew, SS 0-for-4, 2 K: He hasn't hit for average lately (.219 since Aug. 20), but Monday snapped a 10-game streak in which he'd managed to reach base at least once.
Will Middlebrooks, 3B 1-for-3: No reason for real concern yet, but over the past week he's hitting .235 with a .513 OPS.
Pitchers
9 IP, 3 ER, 8 H, BB, 6 K, 3 2B
John Lackey, SP 7.1 IP, 3 ER, 7 H, BB, 5 K, HR: Lackey pitched into the eighth for the fourth time this season -- three of which have been his three strarts since Aug. 23. Whether it's really as good as he's ever been is debatable; it's not so in regards to his time with the Red Sox.
Matt Thornton, RP 1.2 IP, H, K: Seemingly getting more comfortable, he pounded the strike zone with 12 of his 15 pitches -- including five of six when starting an at-bat.
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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes Boston.com's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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