The Curious Case of Francona Bunting

When a team is not playing up to expectations, even good managers will get their fair share of criticisms for the problems on the field.

While some problems worked themselves out over the course of the year – namely the bullpen and the defensive play behind them and the rest of the pitching staff – the offense was a mystery and a dilemma throughout the 161 games logged by the Cleveland Indians this season. Some blame fell on the lack of production from the players on the roster and some fell on that mystical “right-handed power bat” that fans have clamored for over the last decade. But in regards to things that manager Terry Francona was critiqued heavily about, the decision to bunt and bunt frequently was often lauded for both its use and effectiveness (or more so, its ineffectiveness).

For the last two seasons under Francona’s watch, the Tribe has held on its roster the American League leader in sacrifice bunts. One of those players would seem worthy of being denoted as such, while the other was a much more puzzling and frustrating source to use to move a runner up.

The Indians completed 47 sacrifice bunts in 2015 and had another handful of failed opportunities along the way. They were tied for ninth in all of baseball with the Cincinnati Reds but, much more concerning, it was the top mark in the AL this season.

Keep in mind that each of the teams above them on that leaderboard are National League clubs forced to send their pitchers to the plate several times per game for all but ten or so AL-hosted interleague games over the course of a complete schedule.

With that said, the Indians out-bunted six different NL teams over the season.

Let it sink in and fester a bit. That anger you felt at Francona giving up an out to move a runner up 90 feet is fairly justified.

In 2015, the Major League Baseball leader for sacrifices by a non-pitching player was Francisco Lindor with 13. He trailed the MLB leader, Atlanta pitcher Julio Teheran, by one.

Yes, the same Lindor who is a strong Rookie of the Year candidate for his plays at shortstop but even more for his .313 average over 99 games. The same 21-year-old who had 122 hits (fourth-most on the club), including 22 doubles (fourth-best on the team), four triples (third-best), and 12 home runs (fourth-best), while scoring 50 runs (fourth-most), driving in 51 (fourth-most), and stealing 12 bases (fourth-most).

The Indians sacrificed one of their top offensive threats THIRTEEN times, forcing his speed and energy off of the base paths while leaving dreams behind of the damage his potent bat may have done to an opposing pitcher.

Had Lindor played a full season in Cleveland (let’s avoid that argument here for time constraints…) and maintained his same frantic bunting pace per his skipper, he would have logged 21 sacrifices over the six month baseball calendar, which would have been nearly double the eleven sacrifices by the second man on the AL’s list, Kansas City’s Alcides Escobar.

With the way American League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Escobar has hit in the postseason, are any fans and critics questioning KC manager Ned Yost’s decision to square his first time All-Star shortstop around as much as he did during the season?

At least in Escobar’s case, he hit just .257 in 148 games this season.

There is a clear argument by some about the benefits of surrendering an out for free when a team is limited to just 27 of them in a traditional nine inning contest. Each batter and each out has a great deal of importance and giving the opposition a free out, and from one of the better second half players this season no less, seems to be a risky and suspect move.

To that end, criticisms of Francona and of the concept of the bunt itself are merited.

More troubling is that it is not a new function of the new-look Francona offensive style.

In 2014, Jose Ramirez finished the season tied for the Major League lead in sacrifices with 13, matching the numbers supplied by New York Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner and St. Louis pitcher Shelby Miller. The most compelling difference, at least on the AL side of that leaderboard, was that Gardner donated his baker’s dozen in 148 games; Ramirez sacrificed his share in just 68.

Ramirez, in significant contrast to Lindor, hit .262 in his games played and drove in just 17 runs that season.

A total of eight players in all of baseball last season reached a double digit tally in sacrifice bunts. Cleveland was the only team to have two; Mike Aviles sacrificed eleven times in 113 games.

As a team, the Indians again were the AL leader in sac bunts with 51, eight more than Tampa Bay. It marked a dramatic and stark change in philosophy from the Tribe dugout, where they had done similarly just 31 times the year before while finishing seventh in the AL overall, 15 behind a league-leading Houston Astros team that scored 135 runs fewer than them.

In the season with fewer sacrifices under Francona’s management, the Indians placed fourth in the league with 745 runs scored in 2013, sixth with 290 doubles, eighth with 171 homers, and eighth with a .255 batting average. As an offense, despite making the AL Wild Card game that season, they were statistically very average.

In 2014, they scored 669 runs (seventh), had 284 doubles (fifth), 142 homers (ninth), and had a .253 average (eighth). Very average across the board in the 15-team league, with a stark drop off in runs scored and home runs.

In their most recently completed effort, they drove in 669 runs again (eleventh), hit 303 doubles (second), had 141 homers (13th), and hit .256 (sixth).

Run production remained low and was notably worse in comparison to the rest of the league. While the team showed improvement in extra base hits of the two-bag variety, the home run production remained well below that of teams around the league.

If that power outage continues to be the trend, I hate to be the one to burst your Tito’s Dubble Bubble, but the bunt may be here to stay.

Photo: AP Photo/Tony Dejak

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