When ranking scintillating baseball action, the sacrifice bunt would probably come in slightly ahead of the balk and the walk but well behind the triple and upper-deck home run.
It has, nevertheless, consumed considerable practice time for years in spring training and minor-league ballparks across the country. It has also often been a valuable tool for a team in need of a single run late in games. The sacrifice bunt has also been the action most likely to have some measure of success for a pitcher with a bat in his hands, which is why it is often ordered by a manager.
The truth about the sacrifice bunt as we begin the third decade of the 21st century is that it has become an endangered species. It actually was already endangered in the American League, the longtime home of the designated hitter.
In 2010, Texas led the American League with 53 sacrifice bunts and Toronto was last in the league with 16. A year ago, Cleveland led the league with 40 and the Los Angeles Angels were last with just four. With 15 sacrifice bunts, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw had more than nine American League teams.
And now, for the first time and likely for the rest of time, the National League also will use the designated hitter this season. That’s sure to mean fewer sacrifice bunts overall, especially since so many analytically driven teams are opposed to the idea anyway.
There is one thing, however, that could save the sacrifice for at least this season.
Baseball’s 2020 extra-inning rule should make the leadoff bunt at least a little bit enticing.
“We talk about it a lot,” Phillies manager Joe Girardi said. “I kind of walk around and ask the coaches their thoughts on it because it’s new for all of us. I know it has happened in the minor leagues, but it’s new for all of us. It’s going to be interesting. I just hope that if we do get into extra innings that we’re the home team every time.”
The rule is this: Once the game goes to extra innings, the batter who made the last out the previous inning begins the inning at second base.
Move him to third with a bunt and there are a long list of ways for him to score.
“I still think the real advantage is being the home team,” Girardi said. “I also think you have to look at each game different depending on who you have left in your bullpen and who is up [at the plate] and that sort of thing.”
Some of that is true and some of that is open for debate.
You’re not going to ask Bryce Harper, Rhys Hoskins, or J.T. Realmuto to bunt when they also have a decent chance of hitting the ball out of the park. Didi Gregorius might fit into that category, too. But being the home team might not be as big of an advantage as Girardi thinks.
During his 10 seasons as Yankees manager, Girardi’s teams went 26-28 at home in extra innings and 31-31 on the road. Having the home-field advantage in extra innings a year ago actually was not an overall advantage. Road teams last season went 106-99 in extra-inning games and they lost only 19 times after scoring first.
That means getting the runner to third with one out via the sacrifice bunt could be a very valuable endeavor in the top half of an extra inning. Sure, the home team will also get to start the inning with a runner at second, but the pressure on the hitter becomes greater if his team is trailing.
In research of every extra-inning game from a year ago, it was rare to find instances where the home team was willing to use the sacrifice bunt to move a runner into scoring position. The road team almost never used the sacrifice bunt, and that made sense.
That will probably still be the way things go in 2020, but Girardi, who was considered a master of the sacrifice bunt during his career, said he will at least consider moving the runner to third to start the top half of an extra inning.
“I think you have to think about it,” Girardi said. “We’ve had guys practice bunting -- guys we would anticipate that might bunt in a situation like that. The hard thing about bunting today is the [velocity] in the game. It makes it really difficult and you get into those late-inning [pitchers] and it can be really difficult. It’s something we are going to have to take each game separate and evaluate all the parameters we have in front of us and make the best decision.”