ADVANCED BASEBALL: WHY DID JOE MADDON CALL FOR A SQUEEZE BUNT?

                                        Kallas Remarks By Steve Kallas

Lost in the shuffle due to the Final Four over the weekend was a fascinating play in the Tampa Bay Rays v. New York Yankees game on Sunday afternoon. With the Yankees leading 2-0 and Tampa Bay batting in the top of the fifth, Willy Aybar was on third and Shawn Riggans was on first with one out. At the plate was number-nine hitter Jason Bartlett. On deck was leadoff-hitter Aki Iwamura.

Jason Bartlett, facing Yankee ace Chien-Ming Wang, squared to bunt. Willie Aybar broke for home. Unfortunately for the Rays, Bartlett missed the squeeze bunt and Aybar was tagged out (officially scored a caught stealing, but that’s an absurdity for another day).

Your initial reaction, before you thought it through, could very well have been “what a stupid play; trying a suicide squeeze down two runs (as opposed to one run).” In fact, the next day, Maddon was slaughtered on New York radio (WFAN), with none other than Mike Francesa saying the attempted squeeze was “the dumbest play ever” and that it was “a ridiculous play that made no sense.” His partner, Chris Russo, also couldn’t understand it, coming up with “maybe Willy Aybar couldn’t hit Wang.” Aybar, of course, was already on third after singling off Wang (Bartlett was at the plate and missed the bunt attempt).

Of course, if you follow baseball, that simply doesn’t make sense. If you know one thing about Joe Maddon, it’s this: he’s a baseball lifer who really knows the game. If he does something that, at first glance, doesn’t seem right, deeper analysis should be required before one can even think about criticizing him.

In fact, it was a brilliant play (until, of course, the bunt was missed). Here’s why: in a 2-0 game where runs were obviously hard to come by, you’ve got to get your runs early against the Yankees. With the already obviously potent Yankee bullpen in the eighth and ninth innings (shades of 1996, when it was a six-inning game against the Yankees before Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland shut the door), Maddon had to do something.

Maddon would later say that, in fact, he had called for a safety squeeze (runner on third doesn’t break until the ball is actually bunted and, even then, only if he can make it home safely), rather than a suicide squeeze (runner goes on the pitch and whatever happens, happens). Those with a deep understanding know that’s true because the runner on first, who would absolutely go if it’s a suicide squeeze (he gets into scoring position no matter what happens at the plate), didn’t break for second.

And therein lies the brilliance of the play: if Bartlett gets the bunt down and the run scores, you’ll have the tying run in scoring position for your leadoff hitter, the tough out Aki Iwamura. So, one bunt and a bloop single would have tied up the game in a game where Tampa Bay simply couldn’t score. Of course, it didn’t work and the game ended up a 2-0 victory for the Yankees, the same score as when Maddon tried the squeeze.

Tampa Bay, a much-improved team, is simply in the wrong division, having to face the Yankees, Red Sox and also much-improved Blue Jays. So Joe Maddon, already one of the five best managers in baseball, has to do whatever he can to make things happen. Remember, even if a safety squeeze bunt was laid down and Aybar couldn’t score from third (obviously the main goal), Riggans probably would have made it to second and Iwamura, again with just a two-out bloop single, still could have tied the game.

One final thing: maybe you would be smart enough to review the box score to see what Iwamura had done that day against Wang. Well, he was 0-2, but had put the ball in play twice against a tough pitcher. But you can bet that Joe Maddon knew this when he put the safety squeeze on: Iwamura, a solid .285 average hitter last year as a “rookie” in the major leagues (he had previously played in Japan), was also 3-6 with a triple against Wang last year. Hopefully, you get the point.

So what we have here is a brilliant play called by a manager who is not really known in New York and who then gets slaughtered on New York radio because, as often happens, the hosts don’t really quite understand what happened in the game.

© Copyright 2008 by Steve Kallas. All rights reserved.

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