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Bad things happen to those who bunt

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A bunt is designed to give away an out, but often they give away an out without even achieving the bunt.

Yadier Molina has no idea what is about to happen.
Yadier Molina has no idea what is about to happen.
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The stage was set for a storybook ending on Thursday night. After the Cardinals tied the game in the 8th thanks to a mental mistake by Mark Reynolds or #CardinalsDevilMagic, depending on your personal beliefs, Yadi led off the 9th with a double to the gap. As he stood up at 2nd base and let out a war cry, it looked like victory was just a base hit away.

And then came the bunting.

Bourjos squared up to bunt the first pitch, but took a nasty curve from Jeremy Jeffress for a strike. He bunted the next curve foul. With the count 0-2 and the winning run in scoring position, Cardinals Manager #22 again put on the bunt sign. Bourjos again bunted foul, and it would take four more innings before the Cardinals could push across the winning run.

The decision to have Bourjos keep trying to bunt with two strikes was questionable enough to even draw the ire of the Fox Sports Midwest crew. But the at-bat illustrates just one of the many ways a bunt-attempt can go wrong.

There's a popular misconception that calling for a bunt means a bunt actually happens. When the batter's attempts squirt off into foul territory or dink behind the umpire, it's a cue for whatever Wise Old Baseball Man sits in the analysts chair to lament the lost art of getting down a bunt. But as Jeff Sullivan noted back in March, bunting is hard. By his estimate, a little less than half of the time a player holds his bat in front of the pitch does he manage a bunt that is even in fair territory.

Peter Bourjos has 16 "bunt attempts" this season, meaning at-bats which ended with a bunt into fair territory. In those, he's gotten a hit three times and sacrificed five times. That would make it seem as though there's been a positive outcome in half of his bunting at-bats, which in the low-margin game of baseball, is not too bad. But in five other at-bats this season, Bourjos has attempted to bunt early and then either swung away or simply failed to make contact. He struck out three times, grounded out once and also got one hit after swinging away.

Of course, this season is a pretty small sample size. Over his career, Bourjos has had 76 plate appearances in which he either missed or fouled a bunt attempt. Sometimes, he eventually got the bunt down. Sometimes he swung away. But in those 76 plate appearances, he managed only 4 sacrifices and 12 hits. His slash line in at-bats where he muffs a bunt is: .171/.228/.371.

Bourjos is just a sample case, and given his speed, his results are probably better than most. But even though PitchF/x now allows us to parse at-bats with foul and swinging-strike bunts, we still can't account for strikes taken looking while squared to bunt. The bad results that come from bunting go beyond just failed "bunt attempts." The intention to bunt also leads to a lot of strikes, putting hitters in bad counts and making any kind of success even more unlikely.

Many of us have bristled at Matheny's tendency this season to bunt runners from second to third with nobody out, a move that often slightly reduces win expectancy. But before we can even debate the nuances of win expectancy, we have to consider whether the bunt will even be successful - and that is far from a sure thing.