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Media and Bunting

Actor Jon Ham does not approve of bunting.
Actor Jon Ham does not approve of bunting.

It's a universal truth that in any modern sport, it's easier to think of media personalities that are incompetent rather than good ones. (For me, the one exception might be tennis. I think McEnroe has reinvented himself and always does an excellent job.) That maxim is easily applied to ESPN who has long divested themselves of any responsibility or desire to provide informed analysis in favor of delivery what it considers entertainment.

That's why I found it so fascinating to watch the excoriation that Mark Cuban provided after the Miami Heat won the NBA Championship. Deadspin has a clip version of the extended encounter. It's incredible to watch this go on for as long as it does but it's eminently satisfying. Cuban's articulate, good-natured and rational take down of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith is as poignant as it is entertaining. In particular, Cuban's description of how the Dallas Maverick's categorize various basketball plays and used that information to win the finals last year is informative.

None of this is directly applicable to baseball but it's not hard to draw parallels. The concept of categorizing various forms of plays in basketball -- and I don't care about basketball enough to know what any of those plays mean/are -- isn't far off from the idea of Field F/X, which proposes using a collection of cameras in a baseball stadium to chart each player's movements and better determine individual defensive value.

The application of these kinds of advanced probabilistic statistics is not unique to baseball or basketball and they aren't a guarantee of success or failure. In a very general sense, they provide one of two things: (1) a retrospective sense of value or (2) a guide for how to react in certain situations. The second has been of particular frustration after yesterday's game following the disastrous 6th inning bunt.

Someone desperately needs to disabuse Mike Matheny of the idea that bunts are necessary or warranted in any but a select few situations: when the shift is on, late in the game when you need to score a single run, etc. The application of the bunt in a wide range of situations, often early in the game, has been a notable blind spot in an otherwise effective first season as skipper.

In the 6th inning of yesterday's game, with a 4 run lead, the Cardinals found themselves with runners on first and second and no outs. A quick look at a run expectancy matrix would tell you that the "average" team between 1990 and 2010 ended the inning having scored 1.56 runs in that situation. A successful bunt would have put runners at second and third with one out leaving the Cardinals with a 1.45 run expectancy. Is it a significant drop off in scoring? No. Why, however, would you sacrifice any probabilistic edge?

What makes that particular bunt all the more galling is the underlying thought process it betrays. The Cardinals are up by 4. They have a reasonably competent batter at the plate. It's only the 6th inning. To bunt in a situation like that betrays an allegiance to the bunt that is greater than a poor assessment of the circumstances.

Not that you'll ever hear anything like that from TV or radio analysts -- perhaps the only persons with a greater allegiance to the bunt than managers. Unless Mark Cuban buys a baseball team someday.