2020 MLB Postseason: Lay it down, rising to A-Rod’s defense

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Alex Rodriguez at the Fox Sports $200,0000 donation for the Boys and Girls Club of Miami on January 29th, 2020 in Miami, FL (Manny Hernandez/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Alex Rodriguez at the Fox Sports $200,0000 donation for the Boys and Girls Club of Miami on January 29th, 2020 in Miami, FL (Manny Hernandez/Getty Images) /

Alex Rodriguez took a lot of heat for advocating a bunt during a 2020 MLB Postseason broadcast. Truth is, the Reds should have listened to him.

Alex Rodriguez doesn’t need me to rise to his defense. He’s got (nearly) enough money to buy The Mets, plus J. Lo for moral support. That’s two big pluses I will never be able to relate to.

But I’m going to throw in with A-Rod’s incendiary statement on bunting during a 2020 MLB postseason game.

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Me and me alone, perhaps. The Internet has been all over the former Yankee star ever since the conclusion of last week’s Reds-Braves series. In lieu of offense, those games featured Rodriguez in the booth lamenting both teams’ unwillingness to lay down a sacrifice in situations where doing so may have made all the difference.

Most of the Twitterverse criticisms were predictable. A-Rod never bunted himself, so who is he to talk? Those guys on the Reds and Braves teams never practice bunting, so how can you ask them to do it in a game? The stat studies show you’re better off swinging away.

If we address those objections individually, their collective ignorance rapidly comes into focus.

A former slugger himself, Alex Rodriguez never bunted so who is he to talk?

Dayton from Nebraska found this to be all the evidence he needed. A-Rod had 0 sacrifice bunts over the final 15 seasons of his career,” he tweeted.

The logical response to this argument is pretty straightforward: what’s A-Rod’s ability to bunt got to do with anything? He was a home run hitter. Not everybody is.

Duane Kuiper, one of the best announcers in the game, hit one home run in his entire major league career. Is he disqualified from talking about the value of the home run?

Kyle Farmer is a nice hitter, but he’s no A-Rod. He hit zero home runs for the Reds this season and he has nine during his entire career; one home run every 40 trips to the plate.

When he came to bat in the top of the 11th inning of Game 1 of that MLB Postseason game with runners at first and third and none out, did it make sense for Farmer to swing away? Did it still make sense when he whiffed?

You can’t ask players who don’t bunt to do it during an MLB Postseason game.

That’s a genius excuse (I’m being sarcastic) and I’m going to remember it the next time I’m facing a dicey chip shot to a sloping green. I’m terrible at chipping, but that’s only because I never practice it. If I practiced it, I’d be better. But since I don’t it is unfair to ask me to chip. Just as it’s unfair to blame a well-paid professional hitter who never practices bunting for not bunting when a bunt is called for.

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Alex Rodriguez was right, according to studies that show you’re better off.

That’s true…but only as a general proposition. The game specifics often dictate a different conclusion.

The studies show that with runners at first and third and none out – the situation the Reds faced in the 12th inning of that scoreless MLB Postseason game —  the expected run production is 1.798. With a bunt moving the runner on first to second with one out, run expectancy drops to 1.352.

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But those tables are based on normal offensive circumstances, meaning run production in the realm of 10 per game. Looked at in the specific sense of a 0-0 tie in the 11th inning, production of even one run may make all the difference. In that setting, the conclusion that you are better off swinging away relies on several assumptions, none of them necessarily valid.

  • It assumes the runner on third does not score on the bunt, in which case Cincinnati obviously leads. Even better, Cincinnati leads with just three outs to get.
  • It assumes the batter is out at first. That’s usually the case, but it’s less than a given. If he’s safe, you now have — at worst — bases loaded, none out. In those circumstances, run expectancy rises to 2.282.
  • It assumes that the batter has “normal” bunting skills and that the runners have normal baserunning skills. All of those are situation-dependent.  At the top of the 12th of that scoreless game, the runners at first and third were Aristides Aquino and Travis Jankowski, both possessed of good speed.

Had  Barnhart gotten a bunt down — because, knowing he’s not a slugger, he practiced it a bit — it is totally plausible to envision that Aquino would have scored on the play. In that scenario, you have a runner at second, one out, and a run on the board, and we’d all be talking about the genius Reds manager David Bell is to rely on such a ‘daring’ strategy.

The Twitterverse jumped all over A-Rod because he had the nerve to argue for an approach that has fallen out of favor in MLB circles. There is nothing Twitterheads like to do more than ridicule a celeb for taking a position that runs afoul of accepted wisdom. It’s safe, and who doesn’t feel like a big shot taking on A-Rod.

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But it’s also shallow thinking. Alex Rodriguez was right, and had the Reds listened to him they might still be playing today. The best proof of a strategy is the result. Cincinnati played it the way the Twitterverse would have dictated. As a result, the Reds have lots of time this week to further familiarize themselves with Twitter wisdom…or what passes for it.