Thursday, April 21, 2011

When Not to Bunt

The New York Mets haven't exactly set the world on fire to start the 2011 season. They went into Wednesday night's game 5-12 with a terrible home record. After an off season filled with controversy, that's not exactly the kind of start they hoped for. They played against the Houston Astros. The Astros are a plucky team that seems to continually play over their head. But they aren't a contender by any means. The Mets, meanwhile, have already appeared to be in panic mode. They had a game a few days ago that they just had to win. And so they had two starters (Dickey and Capuano) make relief appearances to try and get it done. That, friends, is panic.

That very same R. A. Dickey who relieved to help win that must-win situation the other day started the game Wednesday night against the Astros. He got off to a rough start and gave up three runs in the second inning. It was just one of those innings. A walk here, a wild pitch there (a wild pitch for a knuckleball pitcher? No way) and a couple of dying quails plated the runs. Dickey settled down after that and held the Astros scoreless until the eighth inning.

Meanwhile, the Mets clawed back in the game against Bud Norris. Norris is from Georgia and his name...Bud...just seems to fit, doesn't it? Anyway, Beltran plated a run with a double and later Daniel Murphy hit a two-run homer in the sixth to tie the game. Right about then's win probability chart went decidedly over the the Mets side of the chart. So the Mets were right in this game.

Dickey, who had been very good from the third inning through the seventh, gave up a massive home run by Pence. The Astros then had a win probability just barely on their side. When the Mets didn't score in the eighth, then the win probability took a definite slide in the Astros favor. Old friend, Jason Ingringhausen, pitched a scoreless top of the ninth and this is where our story really begins.

Brandon Lyon was called upon by the Houston Astros to close the game. Lyon isn't your lights-out kind of closer. He's struck out two batters in five innings of work. In other words, he's not going to blow you away. But the odds beginning the inning were already 91 percent in the Astros favor because that's how often any team wins when leading going into the ninth inning.

But Jose Reyes led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. At that point, the Mets' chances of winning jumped from nine percent to about 32 percent. With Lyon already owning a 25 percent line drive percentage, you have to feel better in the Mets' dugout at that point. The next batter is Josh Thole, the promising young catcher. The Mets obviously believe in his ability because he was batting second in the order, right?

It's obvious that the Mets were worried about a double-play. And the Fan gets that. Brandon Lyon throws to a lot of ground balls. He's sitting at 50 percent this year and 42 percent for his career. Meanwhile, Thole has hit a lot of ground balls. Of all the balls Thole has put in play, 64.9 percent of them have been grounders. Yet, he's only hit into one double-play all season. But you can understand the concern, right?

So Terry Collins, the manager of the Mets, gets that old, unofficial rule of play book out of the dugout closet that says you play for a tie and then take your chances. So he had Thole bunt. There are several problems with that decision. The first of which is that even if Thole is successful in his attempt, you actually decrease your chances of scoring a run when you give up an out. That's already proven. But the ripeness of this call goes beyond that.

Can you guess how many successful sacrifice bunts Josh Thole has executed in his short major league career? That would be none. If you go back to his minor league career, he had one each in 2008, 2009 and 2010. So you are asking a guy who doesn't have a great deal of bunting experience to bunt Reyes to second despite the fact that giving up an out hurts your chances AND despite the fact that Lyon isn't a stud closer.

And sure enough, this questionable decision turned into the worst possible outcome. Thole popped the bunt up, Reyes was doubled off, then there were two outs and the Mets' win probability sank to 95 percent. Sure, you would like to think that a professional baseball player could get a bunt down. But pitchers bunt all the time and often fail. It happens. Don't blame Thole. Blame the decision.

There is another element to this decision: The runner on first. Jose Reyes is fast. He's stolen six bases this season without getting caught. Meanwhile, J. R. Towle (why are there so many dang initials in baseball now?), the Astros' catcher, has thrown out 20 percent of base steal attempts this season and only 28 percent for his career. So you have a successful base stealer against an unsuccessful catcher and that adds up to an 80 percent chance that Reyes will be safe at second, which is where the Mets wanted him. That's a risk. Sure. But a good one compared to bunting a guy who is not used to bunting in a situation where the game is on the line.

At the very least, the Mets could have just let the inning play out and see what Thole and Wright could do with a non-dominant Brandon Lyon. But they chose to bunt. They chose to bunt because they are in panic mode when it's way too early for that. But that fits the mold for Terry Collins, who has always faced each game with a do or die attitude. Frankly, the Fan has said this before the season and repeats it now. Terry Collins is not the right guy for this team. Not under these circumstances. The Fan isn't saying he's a bad manager. This just isn't the right situation. The bunt by Josh Thole seems to be a symptom of the general problem.

This Fan hardly ever thinks the bunt is a good idea. The Fan's wife spits at the television screen whenever somebody bunts. She's right. If bunting is very often a bad idea, this particular bunt was a terrible idea.

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