Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Bunt Heard Round The World

"Home run, home run, Hosokawa! Timely, timely, Hosokawa!"

The cheers from the outfield bleachers filled the Invoice Dome on a crisp September night. But what were they cheering for? The shortest home run in history?

Toru Hosokawa, the catcher for the Seibu Lions, was at the plate, squaring away to bunt for the third time that evening. Three times, he'd stood on deck and watched Shogo Akada hit a single, and didn't even need to see the coach's signal to know he should bunt the runner ahead to second base. Three times, he'd come in, ready to unselfishly sacrifice his own at-bat in order to advance his team's cause. Three times, the crowd screamed wildly for him to get a hit, to drive in a run.

He caught the ball with the bat, rolling it along the ground in front of home plate, and took off running as fast as he could. Matoyama's throw to first was in plenty of time for the out. Hosokawa headed back to the dugout to a roar of cheers from the Lions fans, and the words "Mission Accomplished!" flashed on the big screen.

Mission accomplished, indeed.

Sacrifice bunts are as big a symbol of Japanese baseball as Sadaharu Oh or Koshien Stadium. It's well-known that Japanese baseball players are about twice as likely to bunt as their American counterparts. But exactly how effective a strategy is it?

This year the Nippon Ham Fighters won the Japan Series against the Chunichi Dragons. One obvious reason for this is that in the 5 games that the series lasted, the Fighters scored more than twice as many runs as the Dragons did, 20 to 8. However, another significant thing they did twice as often was sacrifice bunt -- 13 times to the Dragons' 6 times. They also capitalized on those bunting opportunities more, as over half of their bunts (7) led to runners scoring, yet the Dragons only scored two runs from their 6 bunts.

Kensuke Tanaka, the Fighters second baseman who led the Pacific League in sacrifice bunts this year with 34, also set a special record in the Japan Series by hitting six successful sacrifice bunts. Even more impressively, five out of the six resulted in Hichori Morimoto scoring a run. The other run-scoring bunts for the Fighters happened in what would become the final game of the Series. Down by one run in the fifth inning, Naoto Inada doubled, Shinya Tsuruoka bunted him to third, and Makoto Kaneko successfully executed a suicide squeeze bunt to tie the game.

Elegant? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely.

The Fighters also grounded into only two double plays compared to the Dragons' six, which could also be a result of having one runner on second more often than one runner on first. Having a speedy and smart baserunner like Morimoto on second also allowed the Fighters to let RBI-men Ogasawara, Seguignol, and Inaba do their jobs more effectively.

The sacrifice bunt, a fundamental part of "small ball" baseball tactics, has been rolling towards a slow death on the MLB side of the Pacific. Sabermetrics have shown that without any other situational knowledge of a game, a sacrifice bunt will generally lower the probability of a run scoring, not raise it. And regardless of whether a manager listens to their inner stathead, most big-league skippers would generally rather play for a big inning than squander their outs, with the exception of pitchers hitting in the National League.

The number of home runs in the MLB and the number of sacrifice bunts didn't change significantly between 2005 and 2006. On average, teams bunted once more (55) and hit 12 more home runs (179) than they did last year. National League teams bunted 1190 times, about two and a half times as many as the American League 461. The World Series teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers, did not bunt significantly more or less than they did last year, although the Cardinals hit 14 more home runs and the Tigers hit 35 more.

Looking at the NPB, however, yields wildly different results.

From 2005 to 2006, Japanese pro baseball saw a 30% increase in sacrifice bunts from 1014 to 1323, but they also saw a 17% decrease in the number of home runs hit, from 1747 to 1453. Only the Yakult Swallows went against the trend, both increasing their home runs and decreasing their sacrifice bunts.

There were two teams that increased their sacrifice bunts far and away more than any other teams in Japan -- none other than the Japan Series contenders, the Nippon Ham Fighters and the Chunichi Dragons, reporting increases of 79 and 73 respectively. The Fighters even went from hitting a Pacific League-low 54 bunts in 2005 to their league-leading 133 in 2006. Bobby Valentine's Chiba Lotte Marines, in comparison, hit exactly one more sacrifice bunt in 2006 than in 2005, their 57 total being the lowest in all of Japan, the Yomiuri Giants' 89 being the second lowest. They also dropped from being Japan Series champions to finishing in fourth place.

Fighters manager Trey Hillman said at spring training that he was willing to listen to his coaches and players and try to play more Japanese-style small ball, rather than going for big innings. The Fighters scored 38 less runs than they did the previous year, but they also won a club record 82 games and their first Japan Series title since 1962. Hillman hoped the new strategy would let the players play better and harder, getting one run on the board first and worrying about the rest later. It worked far better than anyone expected.

Bunts, strong defense, and young pitchers with fighting spirit - ingredients of a classic Japanese recipe.

Or maybe just for the breakfast of champions.

(Data for this article culled from and; my spreadsheets are here and here.)

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