One of the beautiful things about baseball is that it is timeless. There is no game clock ticking down to zero. Instead, baseball has nine innings. Each inning has two halves and every half-inning consists of three outs. A half-inning could be three hours long if a team scored enough or three minutes if the batting team made outs a quick enough pace.
You'll often hear football, basketball, or soccer announcers talk about working the clock. This is when teams intentionally try to run the clock down. A team will actively attempt to waste time. As I say, one of the beautiful things about baseball is its timelessness.
Instead of seconds and minutes, baseball has outs. An out is the most important occurrence in the game. Each club gets 27 outs allotted to it every game. 27 outs to score as many runs as possible. They are the most precious commodity for a team on offense and should be protected as such.
Every pitcher is trying to record an out every time an opposing batter steps to the plate. Likewise, every offensive player is trying to do something other than make an out--single, double, triple, homer, walk--when he digs into the batter's box. Actually, that's not entirely true. Sometimes managers get in the way with outdated tactics that, believe it or not, hurt their team's chances at winning.
Managers have been known to order a pitcher to intentionally put an opposing batter on base. In a game where the absolute best offensive players make an out 60% of the time, the manager will opt to put a runner 90 feet closer to scoring. It's amazingly common.
Another favorite tactical play by (over)managers is the sacrifice bunt. This is where a team's manager orders his batter to intentionally make an out. To be sure, all sac bunts are not created equal. Some batters are bad enough that ordering them to advance a runner by intentionally making an out has logic to it. They include National League pitchers. NL pitchers are batting .138/.168/.180 this season for a .157 wOBA and -9 wRC+. (For some reason, people actually like watching NL pitchers attempt to hit.)
On Monday night, manager Mike Matheny ordered pitcher Adam Wainwright to sac bunt. It's perfectly understandable. This season, Wainwright has actually made outs at a higher rate than his pitching brethren. His OBP entering play was .143 compared to the NL pitching average of .168. It was the perfect opportunity for Matheny to sate his bunt fetish.
I often wonder about Matheny instilling a culture of bunting in the Cardinals clubhouse. He has bunting contests in spring training and makes all the big-leaguers and prospects watch. Matheny seems to really like bunting in the way your friend really likes cats. It's probably just as uncomfortable to hear Matheny talk about bunting as your friend talk about cats because, well, you just don't understand.
This brings us to Monday night's seventh inning. Adron Chambers led off the bottom half of that inning with the Cardinals down 3-1. He walked, bringing the tying run to the plate in Matt Carpenter. Carpenter singled. The Cardinals had runners on first and second with nobody out and Carlos Beltran coming up. The rally was on.
Beltran is having a good season. He was elected by fans to start for the NL in the All-Star game. Beltran's batting average was .302 entering play on Monday night. That was good for 13th in the NL. His .333 OBP isn't so great, but Beltran has hit for power and posted a .367 wOBA. His 138 wRC+--which is adjusted for league and ballpark--is the NL's 14th best to date. Beltran can hit. This is a guy you want at the bat with runners on first and second, trailing by two in the late innings.
Then Beltran sacrifice bunted. It was the most dumbfounding event in Cardinals baseball since the signing of Ty Wigginton. The Cardinals were down to their last 9 outs. Yet Beltran voluntarily made one. The Cardinals needed two runs, not one. Yet Beltran sacrifice bunted. The Cards' expected run total with runners on first and second with no outs was 1.556 runs; with runners on second and third with one out, it was 1.447 runs. Yet Beltran bunted. Before the bunt, the Cardinals' Win Expectancy (WE) was 38%; afterwards, it was 36.3%. Yet Beltran bunted.
Calling the move dumbfounding might actually be kind.
When Beltran returned to the dugout after intentionally making an out, Matheny approached him. The two appeared to be discussing the bunt. Matheny wasn't giving him a high-five. It seems that Beltran may have just decided to sacrifice bunt all on his own.
Allen Craig grounded out after the sacrifice bunt, plating Chambers. Then Holliday made an out that stranded Carpenter at third. The sac bunt is a tactic that is most effective at scoring a single run and that is exactly what Beltran's voluntarily making an out via bunt limited the Cardinals to in the seventh on Monday night.
David Freese was hit by a pitch to lead off the home half of the eighth. Pete Kozma came in to pinch-run for Freese. With nobody out, Jon Jay dug in and squared around to sacrifice bunt. He got a slider up and in, which he popped out to first base. Did I mention that Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin found in The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball hat sac bunt attempts by non-pitchers only achieve their desired result--batter out, runner(s) advanced--about 48.5% of the time? Apparently Matheny did not speak with Jay about the bunt when he returned to the dugout or himself.
After the game, Matheny ducked all questions about sacrifice bunting. On the one hand, it's understandable the he may have been protecting Beltran's decision to unilaterally sacrifice himself by bunting in the seventh. On the other hand, Matheny has some explaining to do about the pro-bunt culture he has fostered and how it may have influenced a smart veteran like Beltran to intentionally hurt the team's chances of beating the Dodgers. Matheny needs to explicitly inform Carpenter, Beltran, Holliday, Craig, Molina, Jay, Descalso, and Freese, that they are never to sacrifice bunt unless ordered to do so. If Matheny does so, we fans can only hope that he can then hold back from issuing such a dumbfounding order in the future.