David Ross Explains Questionable Decision to Have Pinch-Hitter Nick Madrigal Bunt

Let me go ahead and preface this whole thing by saying I’ve been vocally anti-bunt for a long time, so that is naturally going to color my thoughts on the topic. There are times when I can stomach bunting, particularly if it’s against a shift (which can’t really happen as much now) or if it’s a safety squeeze that’s going to get the go-ahead run home. And if it’s Jon Lester up there at the plate squaring up, gimme that all day.

When it comes to David Ross‘s decision to have Nick Madrigal lay one down and advance the runners in the 9th inning of Wednesday’s loss, however, I was not a fan. Opinion seemed to be pretty evenly split in the immediate wake of the game, though a lot of that came down to the nature of social media. After lamenting the fact that the Cubs just gave up an out with a contact hitter at the plate, I was inundated with responses about all the other things they did wrong.

Yes, the Cubs played a pretty poor game to close out what was a pretty poorly-played series. There’s a big difference, however, between strategy and execution. Christopher Morel striking out looking on a 94 mph dickball was a matter of execution, but already having one out when he came to the plate was a choice.

Ed. note: This one runs a little long, so the tl;dr is buck funting.

Let’s set the stage just in case you’ve already blanked on it: Seiya Suzuki homered to lead off the 9th inning and pull the Cubs to within one run at 4-3, then Jeimer Candelario singled and Mike Tauchman walked to put two on with no outs. Ross then pinch-hit Madrigal for Miguel Amaya and opted for a sacrifice bunt, which was successful in advancing both runners. Morel then struck out and Nico Hoerner walked to load the bases, after which Ian Happ went down swinging to end the game.

“You’ve got to trust your players,” Ross explained to the media after the loss. “I’m not going to pinch hit for [Morel], he can hit one in the seats too, just like he did earlier in the game. Guy’s a really valuable player and Nick puts the ball on the ground a lot, so if he hits into a double play, you might be asking me why I didn’t bunt him. So it’s part of the outcome bias.

“I try to put guys in situations — got a really good contact hitter behind [Morel] if he does strike out in Nico. They walked him and it never even came close and it comes down to bases loaded with Happ at the plate. You take your chances [with that] every single day.”

On the surface, this all makes sense. Bunting eliminates the threat of a double play, at least of the routine variety, and puts the Cubs in position to tie the game with one of any number of batted-ball events. The top of the order was coming up, giving them at least two chances with a group that should comprise their best hitters. The only problem was that the foundation for this logic was too flawed for it to work outside of some best-case results.

Before I get into breaking this down piece by piece in what’s going to come off as beating up on the manager, I want to reiterate that I’ve defended Ross pretty strenuously over the last couple of seasons. I think he’s really good at managing personalities and keeping the team’s energy up, but I find some of these situational moves really questionable.

First up is the decision to pinch-hit for Amaya with Madrigal, who was up there to bunt against righty reliever Phil Bickford. Though it doesn’t really factor because the plan wasn’t to have anyone swinging in that situation, Amaya has a .313 batting average against fastballs and Bickford throws 75% four-seamers. Madrigal has a .327 average against fastballs and a .172 average against sliders, Bickford’s other pitch, and that latter number is much better than Amaya’s .118 mark.

Okay, not a bad decision to swap the two hitters if we’re just looking at those figures. If we look at handedness, Madrigal has a 135 wRC+ in 80 plate appearances against righties since coming back from his demotion while Amaya has a 128 in 57 PAs. Pretty even there, but Ross specifically spoke of wanting to avoid a double play because Madrigal hits the ball on the ground a lot.

It’s certainly true that his season rate of 55.5% and career mark of nearly 60% are not ideal, but he’s been at just over 44% and hadn’t hit into a twin killing in 109 PAs following his return from Iowa. Amaya, who’s not very fleet-footed, has a 35.5% grounder rate against righties and has hit into two double plays against them this season. Advantage Madrigal, though maybe only slightly.

But again, none of that really matters because Madrigal was going up there with the express purpose of sacrificing the runners over. Squaring around on the first pitch, a ball, alerted the Mets to his intentions and had them ready for the next attempt. What if Madrigal had popped it up or lined out sharply to Bickford or third baseman Danny Mendick?

A lot of the arguments in favor of bunting cite the potential for a double play, but that doesn’t go away just because Madrigal was trying to lay one down. Given his contact profile, it seems to me that putting the hit-and-run with Candelario and Tauchman would have been a better option even if it carried a bit more risk. The potential reward would have been greater, however, and the Cubs shouldn’t have been playing for a tie there anyway.

Consider that the Mets had Francisco Álvarez, Francisco Lindor, and Cubs-killer Pete Alonso due up in the bottom of the frame. Playing for just one run on the road with the top of your opponent’s order due up isn’t a great strategy, but that’s more or less what you’re doing when you surrender an out with a bunt.

That’s just one of the two big flaws I find with sacrificing ahead of Morel, who Ross noted had homered earlier in the game. The Cubs already had one runner in scoring position and Morel is a power threat who doesn’t need someone on third to collect an RBI. He’s also got a 33% strikeout rate that jumps to 37% with RISP and 43.5% in what FanGraphs deems “high-leverage” situations. He does have a 144 wRC+ with an .883 OPS in high leverage, though, both higher than in other situations.

What that means is you’re looking at a pretty stark boom-bust scenario with Morel in which erring on the side of bust may have been the best course given the probabilities. Bunting with Madrigal actually decreased the Cubs’ scoring chances even if we don’t consider the result of Morel’s AB. A team is expected to score 1.5 runs with runners on first and second and no outs, but its 32% chance of scoring no runs is still the most likely result. When they have runners on second and third with one out, the expectancy drops to 1.4 runs.

That number plummeted to 0.6 runs when Morel struck out and only rose to 0.77 when Hoerner walked to load the bases for Happ.

One more thing about that Morel AB that I want to clear up: Outside of the pitch he took for strike three, which was most definitely egregious, he did what he was supposed to. Some have lamented that he was hacking at bad pitches, but he saw four rulebook strikes and swung at three of them.

The final aspect of this I’ll address is Happ batting third with Cody Bellinger watching the game end from the on-deck circle. With all due respect for Ross’s faith in his players, I’d much rather take my chances with the team’s hottest hitter batting higher in the lineup with the bat in his hands at the end of the game. Then again, Happ does have a 161 wRC+ in high-leverage plate appearances and was far from a terrible option.

At the end of the day, we’re not having this conversation if any number of things break differently. What if Kyle Hendricks chooses to pitch around Alonso earlier? What if home plate umpire Ryan Wills doesn’t give Mets pitchers several bullshit outside strike calls before finally tightening up late? What if the call on Lindor being picked off at first was upheld and Alonso’s homer was just a solo shot?

And hey, maybe Amaya stays in the game and ends up hitting into a triple play. Or perhaps Ross opts to have Yan Gomes pinch hit and he strikes out. But then Morel homers and the Cubs win and we’re all celebrating. Then maybe a butterfly donates its wings to a frog, allowing it to keep from bumping its ass when it hops. Wait, what?

As Ross said, a lot of our criticism or praise is based on outcome bias. In this case, however, the available data didn’t really support the decision even before it was made. Perhaps the Cubs have access to more granular information that indicated more clearly that a bunt was the best play, I just don’t see it.

Oh well, on to Toronto.

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