Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Why Francisco Lindor Must Bunt for His Life

Danville, Kentucky -- Every once and a while, an idea bounces around the sabermetric echo chamber that's so patently absurd, it begs to be refuted. The notion that Francisco Lindor needs to stop bunting is one such argument.

Lindor is a great player. I've taken interest in him since his minor league days, and was fortunate enough to witness his first major league hit (and goofy tumble in between first and second base) in-person. But Lindor is now under fire from the spreadsheet-gazers. He broke two of the Ten Commandments of Fangraphs: never be a good teammate or sacrifice bunt. When Tito Francona weighed in on the issue recently, it sparked an outcry:
And I mean an outcry. My twitter feed is full of articles about why this poor kid is ignorant and misguided for trying to advance a runner. (See the following articles: [1][2][3])

The anti-bunting argument goes as follows: Lindor is a very good hitter (no argument here) and shouldn't give away free outs because it decreases his team's run expectancy. By this logic, the sacrifice bunt is a selfish rally-killing move that is detrimental to the team's scoring probabilities. It's the type of argument that sounds superficially plausible if you ignore how the game is actually played on the field. It's the type of argument made by people who have never been on a baseball field, down by one run, with a sense of fierce urgency in their heart as they try to put their team in a position to win.

I had to chuckle to myself when August Fagerstorm wrote:
in the games in which Lindor attempted a bunt, the Indians, who finished the season above .500, went 7-10
I thought it was no longer politically correct to cite win/loss records? Isn't win/loss record an archaic, meaningless stat? The problem is, when you look at the results, Lindor's bunting was actually quite helpful to the Tribe.

The Record Speaks for itself: Lindor Must Bunt

You can denigrate Lindor's decision-making with all manor of stats. I'm a more results oriented guy, so I decided to look at the actual outcome of Lindor's sac-bunting. According to baseball reference, Mr. Lindor laid down 13 sacrifice bunts last year. Unlike team spreadsheet, I decided to revisit the game-logs before issuing a verdict on whether or not Francisco is well-served by continuing the practice. I was startled by how successful Frankie was at bunting.

June 22nd, vs. the Tigers. Lindor advances Jason Kipnis to 3rd base. Michael Brantley hits single, Kipnis scores. Rally not killed. Verdict: the bunt worked.

July 5th, vs. the Pirates. Lindor advances Kipnis to 3rd base. Brantley hits single, Kipnis scores. Rally not killed. Verdict: the bunt worked.

August 3rd, vs. the Angels. Lindor advances Ramirez to 2nd base. Brantley hits single, Ramirez scores. Rally not killed. Verdict: the bunt worked. In fact, judging by Carlos Santana's propensity to K, it's a good thing Lindor advanced Ramirez to 2nd.

August 8th, vs. the Twins. Lindor advances Jose Ramirez to 2nd base. Michael Brantley singles, Ramirez scores. Rally not killed. Verdict: the bunt worked.

August 13th, vs. the Yankees. Lindor advances Giovanny Urshela to 3rd base and Jose Ramirez to 2nd base. A Brantley lineout and Santana single score both runners. Rally not killed. Verdict: the bunt worked. 

 August 25th, vs. the Brewers. Lindor advances Kipnis to 3rd base. Brantley walks. A Santana double and Lonnie Chisenhall single scores both runners. Rally not killed. Verdict: the bunt worked.

August 30th, vs. the Angels. Lindor advances Kipnis to 3rd base. Brantley scores Kipnis. Rally not killed. Verdict: the bunt worked.


Surprising, isn't it? Judging by the tone of the Lindor bunting debate, you'd think he was haphazardly giving away outs, single-handedly thwarting the Indians offense. An analysis of THE ACTUAL GAMES, rather than a spreadsheet, reveals that in 7 of his 13 sacrifice bunt attempts, the Indians scored. That's a better than 50% success rate. Given that baseball is a game of inches, I'll take those runs produced by Frankie's selflessness. You could always gamble -- letting Lindor swing freely instead of bunting -- but that opens up the possibility of hitting into a double play and makes it more likely that you strand the runner. For a team with documented RISP-struggles like the Tribe, it makes sense to bunt and score at least one run.

What about the 6 times that Lindor's sacrifice bunt did not result in an Indians run? That's on the people batting behind him in the lineup. I've said for a while that the Indians lack of RBI-production will be the bane of their World Series hopes. If you can't score a runner from second with one out, that speaks to the team's slugging deficiencies, not the wisdom of Lindor's decision to bunt. Lindor can lead a horse to water, but he can't make it drink, especially if this horse isn't clutch. This problem could be easily fixed by the Indians acquiring Matt Kemp, but that's an argument for another day.

Sacrifice bunting is part of the game. You want to know who else sacrifice bunts alot? 2015 American League Championship Series MVP and All-Star shortstop Alcides Escobar, of the World Champion Kansas City Royals™., who boasted 11 sacrifice bunts to his name in 2015. You can't blame Frankie for trying to emulate the best. Lindor taking advice on bunting strategy from baseball bloggers is a little like Donald Trump taking advice from Marco Rubio on how to run a successful presidential campaign.

I encourage those disparaging Lindor's bunts to actually look at the historical record instead of run expectancy charts. Lindor has gotten the job done. Undoubtedly, Lindor's success is part of why Francona has been reluctant to reign him in despite the protestation of saber-inclined Indians fans. I trust Lindor's judgement. I think you should too.

What a teammate.