Gene Mauch and his fondness for the sacrifice bunt

As a major league ballplayer, Gene Mauch was a reserve middle infielder in the 1940s and ’50s with a career .239 batting average. Following his forgettable playing career, he found his niche in baseball as a manager. Beginning with the Phillies in 1960, Mauch was employed as a major league field general almost continuously until the late 1980s, including 22 full seasons and parts of four others. A no-nonsense leader, he was respected equally by his players and opponents, and he was an unapologetic proponent of small-ball.

The sacrifice bunt is a tool that has its place. Advancing a runner with a bunt is a productive out, and whether by the bunt, the sac fly, or hitting behind the runner, productive outs have traditionally been viewed as an important part of a winning baseball strategy. However, the indiscriminate use of any tool (a scalpel, for example, or even a peppermill) can have disastrous consequences.

Mauch had an inordinate affection for the sacrifice. In the “get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in” world of baseball, he was the king of get ‘em over. In his 14 full seasons as an NL manager, Mauch’s Philadelphia and Montreal teams led the league in sacrifice bunts seven times (including one tie). Only one Mauch-led team failed to finish fourth or better in sacrifice hits, and that team was the 1969 Expos. The expansion Expos finished 11th in the NL in OBP, so they can be excused for not bunting more. You have to get ‘em on to get ‘em over.

If you think that Mauch’s NL teams bunted a lot, check out his AL teams. In eight full seasons as an AL manager, his teams led the league seven times. Some years they didn’t just lead the league, they blew it away. During the DH era, NL teams generally produce about twice as many sacrifice bunts as AL teams, with pitchers accounting for slightly less than half of NL sacrifices. In the 38 years of the DH era, an AL team has led the majors in sacrifices only four times, and Mauch was responsible for two of those. His 1979 Twins produced 142 sacrifice hits, well ahead of AL second-leading California with 79 and NL-leading San Diego with 113. In 1982 Mauch’s Angels led the majors with 114. Cleveland was second in the AL with 74, and the Dodgers led the NL with 106.

Mauch last managed in 1987, just about the time that major league baseball embarked on an extended period of hitter domination. During the 1990s, bunting became less frequent, probably driven by two forces, the rise in scoring and the rise of sabermetrics. Bunting becomes a less critical strategy in high-scoring games (why scratch for one run when your team might have to score six or seven to win the game?). Meanwhile, sabermetric analysis has indicated that the benefit of so-called productive outs is limited. It’s better to take your chances trying to advance a runner with a base hit, rather than hand your opponent one of the 27 outs it will need to win the game, or so we are told by sabermetricians. To be fair, the decline in sacrifice bunting since 1990 has not been dramatic (about 20%), indicating that bunting remains an important strategic element of the major league game. Nonetheless, there are some recent extreme examples of non-use of the bunt. The 2003 Toronto Blue Jays had 11 sacrifice hits, and the 2005 Texas Rangers had only nine.

Gene Mauch had a long managerial career, but most of it was with less than stellar clubs. He is the winningest manager never to have taken a team to the World Series, coming close only a few times. His 1964 Phillies collapsed late in the season and finished one game behind St. Louis, and two of his 1980s Angels teams won their division but lost the ALCS. Otherwise, his Philadelphia, Montreal and Minnesota teams mostly struggled. While there is little team success to show for Mauch’s strict adherence to small-ball, in my view, it would be an unfair criticism 24 years after his retirement and six years after his death to say that he flashed the bunt sign too often. However, if Mauch were alive today and managing in the major leagues, it would be worth noting whether he would be as devoted to the bunt as he was during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. And if so, it would be interesting to see the extent of criticism he would endure from sports media and sabermetric-savvy bloggers for pursuing his small-ball strategy.

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