Breaking Down Scott Servais’s Unfathomably Dumb Decision to Bunt

The Seattle Mariners dropped a hearbreaker on Saturday, seeing a 2-0 lead evaporate in the 7th and missing a golden opportunity to win the game in the bottom of the ninth with the bases juiced and one out, before ultimately falling to the Oakland A’s 3-2 in 10 innings. Yusei Kikuchi was awesome. Kyle Lewis extended his hit streak. Evan White had some quality at bats. But it wasn’t enough. And while there were many factors that played into the loss, most notably the missed opportunity to walk it off in the ninth, Mariners manager Scott Servais‘s decision to bunt in the bottom of the tenth was unbelievably stupid. Let’s break it down.

The Situation

The Seattle Mariners have just allowed the Oakland A’s to score a run in the top of the 10th, in large part thanks to MLB’s stupid new extra-inning rule, and trail 3-2, but would be afforded the same opportunity in the bottom of the inning. Shed Long, having made the last out of the ninth, is placed on second base with nobody out. Long has average speed and is a decent base-runner.

The Mariners are set to send Tim Lopes, Dylan Moore, and J.P. Crawford to the plate. Joe Hudson and Mallex Smith were available off the bench. Servais could (and probably should) have kept Dee Gordon in the game in left field after he pinch ran for Austin Nola, then used Smith to run for Long, placing Mallex in left field and Gordon at second if the game continued. But let’s focus on one bad idea at a time.

Oakland has sent their closer, All-Star Liam Hendricks to the mound to try and secure a one run lead. The question before Scott Servais is: do you attempt to bunt? Let’s breakdown the players involved.

The Personnel

As we mentioned above, Shed Long is an average runner and Tim Lopes is the batter. Lopes can certainly handle the bat, has good speed, and is no stranger to being asked to bunt as a pro. He seems like a decent candidate to lay down a successful bunt. But we also need to consider what Oakland has to counter.

Oakland has their two corner infielder expecting a bunt. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson aren’t just normal players, they are arguably the best at their positions in all baseball. In addition, Sean Murphy is an athletic and young catcher. Oakland is well-positioned to counter the bunt and has a hard-throwing reliever with nasty stuff on the mound.

Already, the odds of Lopes laying down a successful bunt aren’t great. In addition, Tim Lopes has been one of the Mariners best bats since last season and he continued his solid hitting both in Spring Training, Summer Camp, and early in the 2020 season. So, should Servais have bunted?

Why it was stupid

First and foremost, if you know you’re going to bunt, don’t “give the batter a strike” before you call for it. All you’re doing is giving the bunter one less opportunity to lay down a bunt. Against an arm like Hendricks, you need all the chances you can get. But what are the best-case scenario?

  • Well ideally, Lopes lays down a good bunt and Oakland makes a throwing error allowing Long to score. But with Gold Glovers Chapman at third and Olson at first, those odds are astronomically low.
  • The next best scenario is that Lopes lays down a great bunt, beats it out, and now you have runners on first-and-third. Again, not likely with Olson and Chapman crashing hard on the play, but even if this is the result, you still haven’t scored a run.
  • Scenario #3: Lopes lays down a good bunt, moves the runner up, and is out at first. So now a deep flyball scores a run. But remember, Long isn’t a burner and Stephen Piscotty has a good arm and Ramon Laureano has arguably the best arm in baseball. This means that in this scenario, you are relying on Dylan Moore to hit a deep flyball or get a base hit off of Hendricks.
  • Scenario #4: Lopes doesn’t get the job done and you have one less out to work with desperately needing a run.

This of course doesn’t include the disaster scenarios that include Lopes laying down an awful bunt and Long being thrown out at third. Or worse, Lopes pops the bunt up and Long is doubled off at second, which very nearly happened.

Remember, having a runner at third with two outs doesn’t help you. In that scenario, you still need a base hit or an error to tie the game. This means that even if Lopes was successful in laying down a sacrifice bunt, you would be relying on Dylan Moore to drive in the run with against an All-Star closer. There simply isn’t a scenario that significantly helps the Mariners win that game.

Servais was content in playing for one run. He was playing for another inning. And while that seems like a decent strategy, you need to understand your team. The Mariners bullpen isn’t good. Oakland’s bullpen is good. Oakland’s lineup is deeper and more experienced. Their bench is in better shape than yours. The longer a game goes, the more the scales tip in the direction of the more talented team. It isn’t rocket science.

The Alternative

So what should Scott Servais have done if not ask Lopes to bunt? The answer is pretty obvious: let him hit. By allowing Lopes to swing the bat, you immediately improve your odds of scoring a run without sacrificing an out. Lopes could single and score Long, or at the very least put runners on the corners with no outs. He could hit a ball into the gap, tie the game, and be standing in scoring position as the winning run, not the tying run. He may even catch the ball on the barrel and ride a ball over the fence and win the game.

Even if Lopes did make an out, there is still a chance that he moves the runner up. A slow roller, ground ball to the right side, or a deep flyball accomplish what a bunt does. At the end of the day, the question of whether or not to bunt is a simple question: would you rather have two chances to tie the game, or three chances to tie the game? It’s not a hard a question. The answer is more chances to tie the game, or gosh forbid, win the damn thing outright.

But Servais took the former option and even managed to bungle that operation by not giving Lopes three chances to lay down a bunt. Scott Servais has done some really good things in his tenure as Mariners manager. He has built a positive culture and helped shepard young MLB players making the transition from minor leaguer to big leaguer. He is good with the media. The players seem to like him. But ultimately, his failures between the first and last pitch of the game are the reasons he won’t be the man in charge when Seattle is ultimately ready to compete for a playoff spot.

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