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The Strangest Plate Appearance of 2018

Matt Carpenter briefly shattered my brain with an odd play. I investigated it.

Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

The Cardinals are in the thick of a playoff race. Today’s game against the Giants will undoubtedly have important playoff ramifications. The team’s performance over the next week is far more important to their playoff odds than any earlier point in the year. Despite all that, though, I can’t stop thinking about a game from May. More specifically, I’m thinking about a plate appearance from a game in May. It remains, for my money, the weirdest plate appearance I’ve ever seen. I absolutely can’t wait to tell you about it.

First, allow me to set the scene. It was Memorial Day. The Brewers hosted the Cardinals in a matchup of terrible jerseys and hot teams. The Brewers were 34-20, the best record in the National League. The Cardinals were a respectable 28-22, second in the NL central and a half game ahead of the Cubs. 42,867 fans came out to see a matchup between division rivals on a beautiful 85 degree day. After two innings, the Brewers led 1-0. The top of the third started uneventfully, with a Francisco Pena strikeout and Luke Weaver flyout. Then Matt Carpenter stepped to the plate (he had been moved back into the leadoff spot only two days before), and the weirdness began.

The first pitch of the at-bat was pretty standard. Carpenter took a ball high and inside:

Pretty mundane. Pitchers have thrown Carpenter a pitch outside the zone to start a plate appearance 320 times this year. Carpenter was extremely hot- as the announcers would note, he was batting .422 since the middle of May. It’s entirely reasonable for Suter to be a little careful here. Carpenter is historically averse to swinging at first pitches, but there’s no reason to give him something juicy to hit when he’s red hot.

After the pitch, the TV camera cut to a wide angle to show the defensive alignment:

Aside from Jonathan Villar doing a jumping jack in right field, that’s a pretty standard shift against Carpenter. He’s slow and hits a lot of line drives, so moving the second baseman to shallow right field is a common maneuver. The second pitch of the at-bat showed that Suter was going to be careful about throwing anything hittable:

That pitch might have been in the strike zone, and it might not have been. In either case, umpire Gary Cederstrom called it a ball, sending the count to 2-0. Pitchers have thrown Carpenter 151 pitches outside of the strike zone on 1-0 counts this year, so we’re still looking at a pretty standard at-bat.

As our beloved announcers spiraled into a mostly-insane baseball theory (if you’re curious, this one was that fouling off a lot of pitches in a lefty-lefty matchup is the best way to get out of a slump), Suter delivered again:

Another borderline pitch, another called ball, and we stood at 3-0. Carpenter has seen 39 3-0 counts this year, 9th in the major leagues. He’s pretty selective, after all. To this point in the plate appearance, things weren’t weird at all. I imagine that you, the reader, are wondering why I’m reliving three low-leverage pitches from a May game while you fret about this afternoon’s game. Well, things got weird very quickly right after this. Suter has pretty good control- he’s thrown 25 3-0 pitches in his career, and only three resulted in a walk. Did Carpenter know this? I’m not sure. What he did next, though, absolutely melted my brain:

That’s right, a 3-0 bunt. With no one on first. With two outs. In fairness to Carpenter, it was an absolutely gorgeous bunt. Travis Shaw, who had moved progressively further from the plate as the count moved in Carpenter’s favor, had no chance. A quick look at the Brewers broadcast shows Shaw’s positioning before the bunt:

Man on first, two out. The announcers loved it. I, meanwhile, ran out of the room screaming.

When I went to research this play, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Do players bunt often on 3-0? I assumed not, but I really wasn’t sure. When I looked, I found that ‘infrequent’ probably wasn’t a strong enough word to describe how rarely this happens. In the last ten years, in fact, there have been only ten fair bunts on 3-0. Most 3-0 bunts are combination sacrifices and hopes to sneak in a bunt single. Carpenter’s obviously doesn’t fit that formula, so I’ll focus on the three that occurred with the bases empty. Cesar Izturis was retired on batter’s interference in 2010 on a bunt, but he had a 46 wRC+ that year, so maybe a bunt is defensible. Cody Bellinger bunted into an out earlier this May, and he has something of a history of bunting on 3-0. Bellinger, in fact, is the only player with multiple fair 3-0 bunt attempts in the last ten years.

And then there’s Carpenter. He’s a reasonably frequent bunter, having recorded 39 fair bunts in his career. He’s certainly proficient at it, with a 69% success rate reaching base on bunts over the last two years. Still, though. He had recorded a 204 wRC+ in his last ten games, a 1.132 OPS. He was hitting, more or less, like Mike Trout. He bunted! The mind boggles at the unlikeliness. Here’s some good trivia for you. In his career, Matt Carpenter has swung twice on a 3-0 count. You might remember the first one. It was a home run in a key moment in the highest-leverage game of the year, albeit in a season that didn’t end up going according to plan. That means that his two 3-0 swings have resulted in a home run and a bunt single, the opposite extremes of the hit spectrum.

Maybe your brain works differently than mine, but the first thing I thought when I saw this bunt was “that can’t be optimal.” Well, not the first thing I thought. The first thing I thought was “come on come on come on come on” as the ball rolled towards short, before I knew where Shaw was standing. After Carpenter reached, though, I resolved to figure out if the bunt attempt made sense, and I’m doing that now.

3-0 counts are incredibly hitter-friendly. I wouldn’t be asking this question if Carpenter had bunted on 1-0 or 2-1. Just how good are 3-0 counts for hitters? Well, after reaching a 3-0 count, hitters slash .325/.736/.557, good for a 257 wRC+. Carpenter himself bats .423/.849/.845 after 3-0 in his career, a preposterous 318 wRC+. That’s a tremendous line, sure. Is it better than a bunt single, though? Well, wRC+ and by extension wOBA aren’t really a good way to find out. The reason is that those stats are context-neutral. A double is a double is a double, whether the bases are empty or loaded. That wasn’t the case in this situation though. Carpenter chose to bunt knowing the situation in the inning. The two outs and empty bases absolutely factored into his decision-making. To know whether or not a bunt makes sense, we need to figure out the run expectancy for all the possible outcomes of the plate appearance and compare that to the bunt. Baseball prospectus has a handy table for run expectancy, and I’ve reproduced the relevant parts below:

Two-Out Run Expectancy

2 Outs Bases Empty 1B 2B 3B HR
2 Outs Bases Empty 1B 2B 3B HR
Run Expectancy 0.1005 0.2213 0.318 0.3586 1.1005

If you haven’t seen one of these before, that’s how many runs on average are scored with each of those starting positions. For the “HR” one, I’m using the bases empty run expectancy and then adding the run that scores on the home run. If you make an out with two outs, your run expectancy obviously declines to zero, so someone who hits home runs half the time and strikes out half the time would have a run expectancy of .55 (1.1005 plus 0 divided by 2). I performed a similar calculation on all the plate appearances in the majors through a 3-0 count this year. They work out to a .1834 run expectancy. With this in mind, it’s pretty easy to work out a breakeven success rate for bunting. Let’s assume that there are two possible outcomes- bunting for a hit or being thrown out. Bunting for a hit gives you a .2213 run expectancy, while an out takes you to 0. Thus, Carpenter would need to convert on 83% of his bunts (.1834/.2213) to do as well as the average 3-0 plate appearance by bunting. Maybe he’s a good bunter, but I’m not sure anyone’s that good. It gets worse, though. The run expectancy I listed above is for the average major league hitter. Matt Carpenter is decidedly not an average major league hitter. His own run expectancy after 3-0 counts is .212, which means that he’d need to convert 96% of his bunt attempts to break even. The numbers aren’t very different against lefties only, though admittedly it’s a small sample.

Taken through this lens, a bunt seems kind of silly. Intuitively, it makes a lot of sense that a bunt is silly. A walk is an incredibly likely outcome of this at-bat, and that’s the maximum upside of the bunt. It’s also a lot easier to hit for power on 3-0, as evidenced by the .234 ISO that all of MLB has produced after a 3-0 count (and Carpenter’s .423 ISO in the same situation), and power is what you want with two outs and nobody on. There are other considerations, sure. If it’s Billy Hamilton up there, maybe he can steal second and create a build-your-own-bunt-double, a synthetic extra-base hit. Matt Carpenter is not Billy Hamilton. He’s stolen 19 bases in his major league career while being caught 16 times. He’s a slow runner. He’s had negative UBR value (Fangraphs’ metric of taking extra bases) for the last five years running. He’s never had positive wSB (value from stolen bases). Don’t count on him making something happen after he gets on base, is what I’m saying.

I remember watching this game. I scribbled the play down as something to come back to for analysis. I then promptly threw that sheet of paper out, and only rediscovered this play on an unrelated search yesterday. The moment I saw the play in a play log, though, my need to analyze and understand it came screaming back. The shock value of seeing Matt Carpenter swing 3-0 was only exceeded by the shock value of seeing ANYONE bunt 3-0, and I just couldn’t comprehend what was going on. Four months later, I still don’t. Carpenter can hit home runs off lefties. He hit a home run off of Suter later in this game. I may never understand this play. Let’s be real- I’ll never speak to Matt Carpenter in my life. He’s a professional baseball player and I write articles for a blog in my spare time. If I did, though, the first thing I’d ask him would be why he bunted here. Maybe he wouldn’t remember. Probably, even, he wouldn’t remember. It’s going to bug me until I find out, though.

Today, a lot of baseball will happen. There will be highs and lows, and scores of plate appearances with more bearing on the Cardinals’ season than this Carpenter play from late May. I’m probably not going to remember any of those next year, though. I’ll remember this one as long as I follow baseball. The time Matt Carpenter bunted on 3-0. It’ll never leave my brain. Jose Martinez flied out to right to end the inning, by the way. The Cardinals lost 8-3. The bunt ended up not mattering at all.

A brief side note: the Cardinals need better announcers. They didn’t stop to meditate on whether the play made sense, whether it was helping the Cardinals win. Instead, they focused on what I would say was the stupidest thing I’ve heard in announcing all year, if it weren’t for all the other stupid things I’ve heard. “Think about a long season, and picking up two bunt hits a week, and where your average is by the end of the year.” What does his batting average matter here? I totally understand that a walk isn’t always as good as a single. That’s self-evident. Singles advance runners, singles can be stretched into doubles if fielders misplay them. That’s not this bunt. This bunt was an attempt to get exactly to first base while advancing no runners. It’s disingenuous to argue that it’s any different than a walk. I consider myself a baseball analytics skeptic, in the classical sense of the word skepticism. When people bring up new ideas or complicated stats, I want to be really sure that they’re better than what we already have before using them. I think there’s a place in the game to think about batting average, to think about advancing the runner; that advanced stats really do miss at the moment. Not here, though. This was a bad bunt, a mystifying bunt, and talking about it as a great way to prop up your average does no one any favors. I’m not asking for Al to start talking about wOBA tomorrow. I’m not saying that Jim Edmonds needs to start talking about Outs Above Average, or optimized launch angles. I just want them to think about baseball instead of going through the game on autopilot. Maybe there are good reasons to bunt there. Maybe it’s a psychological boost. Maybe it’s part of a game theoretical play to make the Brewers shift less in future plate appearances. Maybe Carpenter’s swing felt a little off. Maybe he wasn’t picking up Suter’s delivery well and didn’t like his chances in the rest of the at-bat. Talk about those, though! Don’t just mention that bunts count as hits and move on with your life. I listened to the Brewers announcers talk about the same play. They reacted with a wry chuckle, then one of them wondered whether it wouldn’t be better to try to get into scoring position given two out and nobody on. Me too, unnamed Brewers announcer. Me too.