Monthly Archives: March, 2022

Demise of the Sacrifice Hit


There are two significant rule developments in Major League Baseball for the 2022 season. First, games will continue to use the so-called zombie runner rule where each half-inning in an extra inning will start with a runner on second base. Second, MLB will implement an universal designated hitter where every team can use a player (instead of the pitcher) who only hits and does not play the field.

Both of these rules impact the use of sacrifice hits. How? Imagine a team that starts their half of the extra inning with a runner on 2nd base. A simple way to score that runner is for the first batter to advance the runner to third by a sacrifice bunt (SH) and for the second batter to advance the runner to home by a sacrifice fly (SF). A sacrifice hit is part of a good strategy for scoring a run in the extra inning with the zombie runner rule. Also, sacrifice hits are typically hit by the pitcher who bats in the 9th position. With the introduction of the universal designated hitter, it is less likely for a weak hitter (like a pitcher) to advance the runners by a sacrifice hit.

This post will explore issues related to the use of the sacrifice hit in baseball. We will look at current MLB usage of sacrifice hits and how this usage is different from past MLB seasons and other professional leagues. We will see the runners on base and outs situations where sacrifices are hit. Using a matrix of run probabilities over different situations, we will justify the use of the sacrifice hit and conclude by giving some comments about the future of the SH in baseball.

Current Usage of the SH

Current MLB teams differ on their use of the sacrifice hit. The graph below displays the count of SH for all 30 teams for the 2021 season. Since the leagues in 2021 differ in their use of the designated hitter, it is not surprising that the National League teams (where pitchers bat) tend to have more sacrifice hits. But the use of the SH across teams within a particular league shows high variation. For example in the American League, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Seattle and Toronto rarely sacrifice (each under 10 SH all season) and Kansas City sacrificed over 30 times. Colorado was the leader in SH among all of 2021 teams. (Looking at some recent seasons, I see that the LA Angels only had 4 SH in the 2019 season.)

Comparison with Other Seasons and Leagues

Sacrifice hits were more common in past Major League Baseball seasons. One way to measure the use is to divide the SH count by the number of plate appearances (PA). This graph displays the SH percentage for the 1921, 1971 and 2021 MLB seasons — we see a steady decrease in use of sacrifice hits from 1921 to 1971 to 2021.

Another way to measure the use of the sacrifice hit is to consider the number of SH per team per game. Using the BR_Batting_History() Shiny app from the ShinyBaseball package, we see the general trend in using sacrifice fits. There was a sudden drop off in the late 1920s and then a gradual decrease until the current season.

Other current professional baseball leagues are more likely to sacrifice. For example, the 2021 Japanese Pacific League had a SH percentage use exceeding 3 percent. (I remember seeing a sacrifice bunt in the first inning in a baseball game in Japan a few years ago. It would be rare to see a 1st inning sacrifice in the current MLB.)

When is the SH Used?

Typically a batter attempts a sacrifice hit when there are few outs and runners on base. The graph below displays the fraction of SH’s in different runners on base and outs situations from Retrosheet data. We see that most SH’s occur when there is a runner on 1st and 0 or 1 out, or a runner on 2nd or runners on 1st and 2nd, each with 0 outs. One might be surprised to see a positive number of SH’s when there are no runners on base with 0 outs. Actually, this is a mistake or rather a feature of the Retrosheet dataset. The 2021 season file does not record the initial runner on 2nd in extra innings, so I believe these “000 0” SH’s represent the sacrifice hits in the extra innings.

Who Hits a SH?

The following graph plots the fraction of sacrifice hits for each of the possible batting order positions. A majority of the SH’s occur in the pitcher’s (9th) spot. Note that it is least likely to see a batter hit a SH in the cleanup (4th) location.

Success Rate?

For stolen bases, we record the number of SB attempts and the SB attempts that were successful, so it is straightforward to compute a SB attempt success rate. Unfortunately, only the count of successful sacrifice hits is recorded, so the count of sacrifice hit attempts that were not successful is unknown. A team would need to know the chance of a successive sacrifice hit to decide if a bunt is a reasonable strategy. (I suppose a careful look at game videos might provide some insight on the success rate of bunts.)

Is the SH a Good Strategy?

One tool for deciding if a SH is a good strategy is the following matrix that displays the probability of scoring at least one run for different runners on base and outs situations.

Suppose there is a runner on 2nd with no outs (we code the runners by 020). By the table, the probability of scoring in this situation is 0.605. Suppose one successively sacrifices and the runner advances to 3rd. The table gives the probability of scoring with a runner on 3rd (003) with one out is 0.648, so we have increased the probability of scoring. If one is certain of a successful bunt, this suggests that a SH is a good strategy.

Instead suppose there is a runner on 1st with no outs — the probability of scoring is 0.432. Here the probability of scoring in the situation assuming a successful sacrifice (runner on 2nd with one out) is 0.408. Since the probability of scoring has decreased, the case for a SH is less compelling.

These calculations are helpful, but there are more factors to consider in this decision making process, such as the chance of a successive SH (can the batter lay down a good bunt?) and the quality of the following hitter.

In Chapter 9 of the 2nd edition of Curve Ball, we discuss the strategy of attempting a sacrifice hit including an example of Craig Counsell from the 2001 World Series. There are several takeaways from this discussion. The first is that weak hitters should attempt to sacrifice if the goal is to maximize the probability of scoring in an inning. A second comment is that the sacrifice bunt is an effective strategy in situations when a single run has a significant effect on the chance that the team wins the game. A single run can have a big impact late in games (such as extra innings) where the game score is close between the two teams.

Closing Remarks: Future of the Sacrifice Hit

  • I like the sacrifice hit. Here’s an example of a great sac bunt by Ichiro Suzuki that led to the scoring of two runs. I think the sacrifice bunt, say with a runner on 1st and no outs, is one of the more exciting plays in baseball. A successive sac bunt is a short ground ball where the only fielding play is the sure out at first base. A successive sacrifice puts the runner on 2nd base — this runner can’t get out on a force play and can score with a single. I am impressed with pitchers who can execute successful sacrifices.
  • The future of the SH? I believe the use of the sacrifice hit will continue to decline in Major League Baseball. Although there will be opportunities to advance runners on base by a sacrifice bunt, the batters will likely have little practice in good bunting and, in the current home run environment, one is taking away the opportunity to hit a home run. By looking at the data, it is clear that some teams like Tampa Bay presently don’t view SH as a good strategy and with the introduction of the universal DH, most teams will be reluctant to sacrifice.