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Florida Baseball, Bunting, And Boldness: Why the Gators Should Swing Away

If you've been following @AlligatorArmy on Twitter in the last month or so, you have no doubt noticed my antipathy for the sacrifice bunt. (And if you haven't been following @AlligatorArmy on Twitter, get on that.) I've been meaning to explain why that is, but it has everything to do with this: Florida, and most baseball teams, need a bit more boldness.

College baseball, to be fair and admit a truth, is different this year. Runs are down; home runs are down (PDF). But the idea that the new BBCOR composite bats have suddenly made or should suddenly make college baseball a world of small ball is overcorrection at its finest.

The best way to score runs, at any level of baseball, is to avoid making outs. That may be counterintuitive at first blush ("But hits score runs!"), but the idea is sound: if you keep not making outs, innings will continue until players have to cross the plate.

There's lots of fairly technical stuff done by sabermetric experts on run expectancy, which is, briefly, the number of runs that will score, on average, from a given game state (like, say, runners on first and second with two outs). Run expectancy can also be expressed as a percentage chance that a run will score at some point in the inning.

There's a run expectancy matrix here, compiled by examining literally every game state in Major League Baseball for about 60 years. (For the purposes of this article, we'll use the 1993-2010 numbers.) You will notice, looking at that chart, that the thing that generally hurts the chances of scoring a run the most is making an out.

That's not surprising, right? Making outs is bad. But trading an out for a base is a particularly great way to decrease run expectancy: sacrifice bunting a runner to second with no outs decreases run expectancy by .22 runs, from .941 to .721, and decreases the chance of a run scoring from 44.1% to 41.8%. Doing the same to move a runner from second to third and make the first out of an inning reduces run expectancy from 1.170 to .989, and while it increases the chance one run will score in the inning, that bump, from 63.7% to 67.4%, isn't exactly huge. (It's also worth noting here that run expectancy is only observed from the first to eighth inning; in ninth innings and extras innings, when teams often bunt more to push just one run across, things change.)

With that in mind, let's look at how run expectancy played out in a few scenarios in Florida's loss to South Carolina last night.

Third Inning

Events: Tyler Thompson walks to lead off the inning. Daniel Pigott swings away and grounds softly to the pitcher, who throws Pigott out at first on a fielder's choice. Thompson advances to second. Thompson advances to third on a wild pitch, then scores on a Cody Dent sacrifice fly.

Run Expectancy: .941/44.1% after Thompson's walk. .721/41.8% after Pigott's groundout. .989/67.4% after Thompson advanced. .112/7.5% after Dent's sacrifice.

Analysis: Thompson's walk is a great way to lead off an inning, but the fielder's choice to move him to second didn't improve Florida's chances of scoring. The Gators got a break on the wild pitch, and Dent's sac fly essentially traded any chance of scoring more than one run in the inning for a run crossing the plate. RBI sac flies tend to work in that respect.

Ninth Inning

Events: Florida loads the bases with a Mike Zunino walk, a Brian Johnson single that advances Zunino to third, and an intentional walk to Josh Adams. Then Scott Wingo makes two great plays at second, getting a force at home and starting a double play to end the inning.

Run Expectancy: Florida's goes from .941/44.1% to 1.853/86.8% to 2.390/87.7% as the Gators load the bases. But that first out drops the chances to 1.631/67.9%, and, obviously, ending the inning was, uh, bad.

Analysis: Florida started the inning about as well as it could, and subsequently got burned by South Carolina's removal of the sacrifice bunt as a viable option with the intentional walk and its own inability to get the ball out of the infield.

10th Inning

Events: Dent singles to start the inning. Fontana sacrifice bunts him to second. Smith pops up. Tucker is intentionally walked. Zunino's single to left gives Dent a chance to round third and score, but he's thrown out.

Run Expectancy: Florida starts at .941/44.1% with Dent's single and drops to .721/41.8% with Fontana's sac bunt. Smith's out makes it .348/23.0%. Tucker's intentional walk could have hurt South Carolina, bumping numbers to .471/27.0%, but Dent choosing to round third/being waved home passes up a .bigger jump to a .814/33.4% opportunity with Brian Johnson coming to the plate.

Analysis: Florida gave up an out to move Dent over, but that open first base and Smith's pop-up gave South Carolina a place for Tucker and a chance to take the bat out of his hands. And Dent being waved home squandered a chance at a guaranteed win with a hit for a decent chance to win.

11th Inning

Events: Johnson singles, Adams sacrifices pinch-runner Paul Wilson to second, and Thompson and Pigott fail to get the ball out of the infield, striking and grounding out, respctively.

Run Expectancy: The same .941/44.1% to .721/41.8% drop pops up again, but it matters more here, when Florida could score more than one run. Thompson's strikeout drops the chances to .348/23.0%.

Analysis: Down one, Florida needs a run to stay alive, and focuses on getting one by playing the same out-for-base trick. Once again, it doesn't work out, and one wonders whether Adams swinging away would have been more prudent.

What does all of that tell us? Well, not much, statistically, because of the small sample size, but Florida manufactured a run with a sacrifice (Pigott's grounder may as well have been) in just one of three attempts last night, and now faces elimination. 

Neither that nor recent history should be the only guide to Florida's offensive strategy. The Gators have gotten lucky with bunts in this NCAA Tournament, too. Zunino's successful but inexplicable sacrifice against Mississippi State got cleaned up by a Tucker blast. And attempted sacrifices against Vanderbilt last Friday fortunately turning into hits and baserunners. But those samples are just as small as last night's.

And so it's worth considering that the numbers, over time, suggest that Florida's small ball approach will fail more often than it succeeds, scratching out single runs or scuttling promising innings more often than it produces big innings. And I would hope Kevin O'Sullivan might consider letting the guys who powered one of college baseball's best offense swing away.

A bit of boldness might be just what Florida baseball needs. And, hell, I'd rather we go down swinging than bunting.