There may be nothing duller in sports than teams employing tactics routinely in a predictable fashion. In Nippon Professional Baseball, the biggest offender is the nearly automatic sacrifice bunt after the leadoff man reaches first in a tie game. This begins in the first inning and never stops.
Yet, as much as we despair of watching Japan’s bunt pageant, something very strange is going on.
As expected, bunting with a runner on first base increases the expectation of scoring at least one run, but decreases overall scoring. In 2,592 NPB games from 2012 to 2014, the visiting team’s leadoff man were on first base 731 times. The next batter bunted 385 times — 344 of which were credited as sacrifices).
The visitors scored in 168 of those innings for a total of 266 runs. That’s at least a run 43.6 percent of the time and an average of .743 runs per inning. In the 346 times when the next visiting bunter — I mean batter — does not strike out trying to bunt or put a bunt in play, teams scored 299 runs and scored at least one 148 times. Sounds like a good deal doesn’t it. Teams that “fail” to bunt score nearly as often — 42.8 percent to 43.6 percent — while scoring 16 percent more total runs.
Yes, it looks like the visiting teams should retire the bunt if they’re giving away so many runs for so little gain. But that’s not the whole story. The teams that benefited by failing to bunt, also failed to win as often. It doesn’t make sense, but visiting teams scoring fewer than three runs after a bunt, won more often than teams scoring the same number of runs in an inning without a bunt.
winning percentages with: 0 runs: bunt .455; no bunt .378 — 1 run: bunt .538; no bunt .485 — 2 runs: .700; no bunt .526.
To say that Japan adores the sacrifice bunt is no exaggeration, and despite doing much better on the scoreboard without first-inning bunts, visiting teams from 2012 to 2014 did worse in win the win column when not executing the nation’s favorite tactic.