The origin of the expression “death by a thousand cuts” dates back to a barbaric form of torture and execution by the the Imperial Chinese government called lingchi, where criminals were put to death by being sliced over and over again. The idiom has come to refer to a series of small bad events, none of which are fatal in themselves, but which nonetheless adds up to a slow and painful death.
That brings us to last night.
You may have heard the Reds played a 16-inning game. That’s not quite right. The Cardinals indeed played 16 innings. But the home team only competed in 14. Six of their precious outs were sacrificed at the altar of bunting.
[Let me be clear, Dusty Baker's insane obsession with giving up outs to obtain bases was not the main reason the Reds lost that extremely important game last night. The hitters left runners on base. A crucial throwing error by Joey Votto. Pitchers gave up home runs (plural) to a rookie. In a 16-inning game, there are a large number, if not a thousand, opportunities to win.]
Back to those sacrificed outs.
Most baseball analysts recognize that the sacrifice bunt has been discredited as a strategy in nearly every case except when a pitcher is at bat. That the practice is gradually disappearing suggests that more modern thinking big league managers have begun to accept that reality.
Major league baseball teams today have access to better information than ever before and they devote a large amount of resources to assimilate that data in the desperate, but reasonable, hope that at the margins, smarter decisions will help them win some games over the course of the long regular season. The sacrifice out is an example of a practice where teams are getting too smart to be so dumb.
The specific case against sacrifice bunts isn’t based on a new-fangled statistic, fantastic assumptions or computer simulation. The simple concept has been around for decades. Earl Weaver understood it in the 1960s. You take data from actual games — every game played, in fact — and calculate how many runs score, on average, from certain situations.
It’s called run expectation. The data from all the games played in 2013 (and these are conclusions that have held for decades) shows this: With a runner at first base and no one out, the team on average scores .83 runs. With a runner at second base and one out, the team on average scores 0.64 runs. So a bunt play that sacrifices an out in exchange for a base, clearly and substantially reduces the chances of a team scoring.
Similarly (and this was the situation for the Reds in the bottom of the sixth inning last night), when a team has runners on first and second base and one out, their run expectation is 0.88. A team with runners on second and third with two outs sees their run expectation plummet to 0.57.
Those numbers conclusively demonstrate the folly of *successful* sacrificed outs. Obviously, when a team attempts and fails at a sacrificing an out, it cuts (dare I say, slices) their run expectancy even more. This isn’t to say that sacrifice bunting never pays off. Of course it does. It’s just that not bunting pays off more often.
Again, these numbers aren’t sabermetric hocus-pocus. It’s simple addition and division based on the actual games that have been played this season. Run expectancy numbers are real and up-to-date.
Of course, one of the special joys of having your team managed by the personification of Old School is experiencing one such ill-considered sacrifice after another. Dusty Baker is a serial sacrificer. The Reds, in fact, lead the galaxy in sacrifice bunts with 76. The next closest team has 61. And that number — amazingly — doesn’t count the failed attempts. The bad bunts resulting in a force-out. The worse foul bunts for strike three. The even worse bunts that result in double plays. And anyone who has watched Dusty Baker’s team try to get bunts down this year can attest, there have been all too many of those agonizing failures.
Back to last night’s mass grave of sacrifice outs — Dusty Baker’s archaic strategies cost the Reds at the margin several times. For example, in the 15th inning, Baker had Brandon Phillips, a hitter with 18 home runs and 23 doubles this year (and more astonishingly, one of each already in that game!), sacrifice his out for a base. To repeat, the Reds gave up the out of a player with 100 RBI for a single base advance. In the 14th inning, Baker ordered Devin Mesoraco to give up his out to bring up light-hitting Jack Hannahan, who promptly hit into an inning-ending, momentum-crushing, double play.
But Baker’s most egregious strategic failure (and superlatives are treacherous where Dusty is involved) took place in the bottom of the sixth inning. With the score tied, Bronson Arroyo was due to hit with runners on first and second and already one out. Arroyo had given up a run in the top half of the sixth and was likely to pitch one more inning at most. The at bat presented the perfect opportunity to have Ryan Ludwick or Devin Mesoraco come in to face either the fading and vulnerable Shelby Miller or the lefty Randy Choate who was warming up in the bullpen. Checkmate.
I think you know how this ends by now. Baker not only kept Arroyo in the game, but ordered him to sacrifice his out, moving the go-ahead run into scoring position from, um, scoring position. With the Reds’ precious second out now given up for basically nothing, Shin-Soo Choo faced left-handed kryptonite at the plate. He grounded out, weakly.
The bottom line is that the Cincinnati Reds entrust in-game strategy to a manager who simply doesn’t seem to understand the basic probabilities of the sport. In the face of mountains of readily available data, Dusty Baker repeatedly takes steps that make it less likely that his team will win games.
At GABP, most fans continue to enthusiastically applaud their team’s death by a thousand cuts. Instead, they should boo the out-of-date and truly torturous practice of the sacrifice bunt. But then again, it’s not the average fan’s responsibility to understand the intricacies of baseball strategy, it’s the team manager’s job. After all, in ancient China crowds reportedly loved the horrific spectacle.