Big League Stew

Sacrificial lamb: Nate McLouth brings back the three-bunt game

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Last Friday, first-year Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez did something that hadn't happened in baseball over the last eight years: He ordered his No. 2 hitter, Nate McLouth, to lay down a sacrifice bunt three different times.

McLouth reached on an error on the first bunt, which Chipper Jones followed with an RBI single.

But it was an outcome that Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel would not permit to recur. The second and third bunts followed a remarkably similar sequence: in both the fifth and seventh innings, Martin Prado reached, Nate McLouth bunted him over, Chipper Jones was intentionally walked, and the Braves loaded the bases with one out and failed to score. The Braves lost 5-4 to the Philadelphia Phillies, and those bunts didn't help their cause.*

* The three bunts actually combined for a positive Win Probability Added of .0049, mostly because the Phillies booted McLouth's first bunt and allowed him to reach base safely. The second had a negligible WPA of positive 0.001, and the third had a negative WPA of -0.007. In all, the three bunts combined to increase the Braves' chance of winning by less than half of 1 percent. If not for the error, the bunts would have decreased the Braves' chances of winning.

Bunting with the No. 2 hitter is a bad idea for a number of reasons, which were outlined by Tom Tango, Andrew Dolphin and Mitchel Lichtman in The Book.

As Sky Kalkman summarizes: {YSP:MORE}

The Book says the #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often. That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall. And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player. Doesn't sound like someone who should be sacrificing, does it?

Because they were led by Bobby Cox for so long, the Braves have always had the image of an old-school team, but Cox was actually a fairly adaptable manager, and he did not call for as many sacrifice bunts as one might think. During the last decade of Bobby Cox's tenure, including Fredi Gonzalez's first run with the team from 2003-2006, the Braves were usually in the top half of the National League for sac bunts, but they were usually closer to the middle of the pack than the top of the heap — from 2001 to 2010, their average rank was eighth out of 16 teams. They had the second-most sacrifice bunts in 2009, but the second-least sacrifice bunts in 2007.

Gonzalez was seen as Cox's protege, but he appears poised to take the Braves in an entirely new direction with the bunt. The Braves have rarely been as high atop the sac bunt leaderboard as they are right now. The Braves are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the major league lead in sac bunts, with 25, and six of the Braves' sacrifice bunts have come from the second spot in the order — one behind the major league leading Milwaukee Brewers. They're third in the National League in bunts by non-pitchers, with 11, behind the Cardinals and Brewers. (The big league leaders are the Detroit Tigers, who have 18.)

That said, Fredi won't be taking the team in a wholly new direction. The last time that a No. 2 hitter laid down three sacrifice bunts in a single game occurred on April 24, 2003.

It was Marcus Giles of the Atlanta Braves.

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