David R. Henderson  

Bastiat on Baseball

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Without question, advancing a runner to the next base makes it easier for the runner to score. You can literally see the runner move to the next base. That's easy.

But as Bastiat declared, ""Stop there! your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.":

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.

The problem with the bunt isn't that it might marginally improve the team's situation. But rather, it's the opportunity forgone, since that advancing doesn't happen in a vacuum or without cost. And it's the cost that is the unseen part. After all, stadium scoreboards don't directly keep track of outs -- think how much differently we'd view outs if the jumbotron had a big countdown from 27. But the reality is that outs are a precious commodity. When a team sacrifice bunts, it virtually guarantees an out.

This is from "The sac bunt: That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen," at Fungoes: Cardinal News from a Sabermetric Point of View. The point will not be new to those familiar with Moneyball. What's refreshing is that the author, as you can see above, explicitly ties his analysis to Bastiat.

Actually, I do have one criticism: scoreboards do keep track of outs within an inning, but not outs overall. I'm not convinced that managers would view outs much differently if they counted down from 27.

HT to my former student, Zeb Daniel.


Commenter Brandon, on the post referenced above, makes two good points:
1) The other "unseen" element that is usually dismissed is the failed sacrifice bunt. So it isn't just that Jay has better than a 30% chance of successfully reaching base without making any outs at all, but it's that Jay did not have a 100% chance of successfully bunting to begin with. Fans see the successful bunt and say "what a team player! That's smart inside baseball!" What they didn't see is that the batter making the deliberate attempt to make an out did not have any assurance that even his humble objective would be accomplished.

2) There is also an opportunity cost in roster construction - if you intend to bunt with guys on base all the time, it is probably suboptimal to construct a roster full of power hitters who get on base a lot but cannot run.

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
8 writes:

It would be interesting if each team had 27 outs and 9 innings to play them in. Imagine the manager, if his first two batters get out, decides to save an out and end the inning early. Or if the team is on a roll, he decides to use four or five outs and hammer a pitcher.

Michael Nichols writes:

You can especially see the mentality flip in the race for perfect games or no-hitters. As you get to the 7th or 8th innings, people start to count down from 9 outs, and the drama increases. Maybe it's then that the opportunity costs get heightened scrutiny. It would be an interesting experiment to have a sample of stadiums do the 27 countdown to see if it alters behavior/strategy.

Eric Evans writes:

That, to me, was a surprisingly lame application of Bastiat, but then again I find his argument surprisingly lame.

For one thing, his argument against sac bunts is that outs are a precious commodity, but the problem is that runs are an even more precious commodity. The average runs scored per game by any team is about 4.5, so in general, one run is about six times more valuable than one out. The chance to get a run is worth an out to advance runners and an out to score at least one. You may hurt your chances to get more than one run, but depending on the situation all it takes is one run.

For another thing, he's only discussing sac bunts completed and ignoring bunts attempted (or showing bunt during the at bat). A mere attempt at a bunt in sac situations may cause the opposing team to shift their defense and make conditions more favorable for other types of hits, or a steal, or even a successful bunt. And those defensive adjustments typically won't stop after that at bat, either. Anytime a similar situation comes up they will tend to make that same shift, since the opposing team was willing to show a bunt in that situation.

Now, you'll get no argument from me, the sac bunt is highly misused in baseball today. But his thinking on this subject is bizarrely sloppy.

MingoV writes:

A successful sacrifice bunt generates an advancement of the on-base player and an out. In some circumstances, that is a good trade-off. For example, if the man on base is good at stealing, then advancing him to second gives him a good chance to steal third. Thus, a sacrifice bunt may effectively advance the base runner from first to third. A runner on third can score with most hits.

A sacrifice bunt also may be wise when the batter is a mediocre hitter with a low chance of getting on base. A badly hit ball could result in a double-play. Having that bad hitter bunt almost guarantees an out, has a low risk of a double-play, and may advance the runner.

Baseball managers know the situations in which a sacrifice bunt has advantages over a standard attempt to hit, so the bunt is not an "opportunity forgone." That would be the case if sacrifice bunts were attempted at random.

Gene writes:
Baseball managers know the situations in which a sacrifice bunt has advantages over a standard attempt to hit, so the bunt is not an "opportunity forgone."

Hilarious! You haven't watched much baseball, have you?

Jim Glass writes:

I do have one criticism: scoreboards do keep track of outs within an inning

Of course. And everybody in the stadium who sees the "out" total increase by one knows full well that this reduces the team's chances to score additional runs in the inning and thus in the game, ceteris paribus.

There is nothing at all "unseen" in the sac bunt situation.

This is rather a matter a weighing against each other two factors that are both fully seen -- the value of increasing the probability that the one runner on base will score versus the cost of the risk that the extra out will reduce future scoring (both of the runner on base and of a potential "big inning" beyond that).

Which of course largely depends on the details of the specific situation (tie game two outs bottom of the 9th, versus top of the 1st) which are also fully seen by everybody.

The "weighing" challenge is an empirical issue which sabermetricians and more recently the pros have tackled by analyzing mountains of data. And the answer, well, varies with the details of the situation.

I'm not convinced that managers would view outs much differently if they counted down from 27.

Again, yes, of course. Does anybody really believe that it is "unseen" to baseball managers (or anyone else in the stadium) that there are 27 outs in a game and each out reduces the remaining number left by one? That they "don't see" the number of outs left in the first inning and in the ninth?

If they didn't know the difference, they'd be as likely to call sacrifice bunts in the top of the first when they still had all 27 left. But they aren't, because they know the difference.

The idea stated in the referenced article that professional baseball managers "don't see" the potential cost of sac bunting is just plain silly. It's measuring that cost against the expected gain that is their challenge.

I greatly enjoy and admire Bastiat and also think it is a positive to see references to him among the wider public, but prefer it when they are on point.

People commonly make poor decisions as the result of mis-valuing what they see, but that doesn't mean they don't see it. Maybe Bastiat said something about that?

Tristan Traviolia writes:

If you want empirical evidence that baseball managers understood the cost of a sacrifice bunt and the precious nature of all 27 outs then read a 2009 interview with Earl Weaver in Sport's Illustrated.


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dave smith writes:

I'd say the same thing applies to punting and field goals in football.

Steele French writes:

I find it interesting that the Cardinals, one of the best teams in baseball, rarely ever attempt a steal. The extra base is rarely worth the even smaller possibility of an out

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