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THE HOT CORNER: Lotte should put brakes on bunt

by Jim Allen (Apr 29, 2010)

We all get carried away sometimes. When you have a good thing, you exploit it--often beyond the point of utility.

The Marines have a good thing in the sheer speed of rookie outfielder Takashi Ogino. The 25-year-old is an example of what is right with Japanese ball. Unfortunately, the way he's sometimes used is an example of how Japan's faith in the sacrifice bunt is misplaced.

The rookie is a quality hitter and second in the PL in stolen bases. The Marines, however, seem determined to take the bat out of his hands and keep him off the bases by having him sacrifice so often--his 15 sacrifices lead the league.

Part of the reason is that Ogino has turned several sacrifice attempts into bunt singles.

"Even if you have him sacrifice, there's a chance he'll still reach base," Lotte skipper Norifumi Nishimura told The Hot Corner on Wednesday at Seibu Dome.

Ogino has sacrificed 14 times this season with No. 1 hitter Tsuyoshi Nishioka on first or second ahead of him, but he also has five infield singles after Nishioka reaches base.

When Nishioka hasn't been on first or second ahead of him, Ogino has batted .333 in 111 at-bats. He is fast and he can bunt, but he can also hit. Because he can hit, the sacrific--even if he reaches safely in 25 percent of his attempts--is an inefficient use of Ogino's talent.

"If I'm asked to sacrifice, I'm happy to contribute any way I can," Ogino said.

"I like to swing, but I don't ever feel like I'd rather swing when I get the [bunt] sign."

Haruki Ihara, the head coach of the Yomiuri Giants and former manager of the Seibu Lions and Orix BlueWave, has said the sacrifice is a way to pressure the defense, of making them more vulnerable. Nishimura says that's the Japanese way.

"In a close game, having men in motion and runners in scoring position forces you to be constantly on guard, and that can tell as the game draws to a close," Nishimura said.

Former Seibu skipper Masaaki Mori once said the three essential elements of offense were reaching base, hitting for power and the sacrifice bunt. His hyperbole is like saying the three keys to winning are scoring runs, preventing runs and knowing how to foul off a 3-2 pitch on the outside edge of the plate.

The psychological impact of the bunt is like the phenomenon of clutch-hitting ability. Both exist, but neither is nearly as big as a lot of people would like to think.

Sacrifice bunts lead to more one-run innings but fewer runs scored overall. When one run will turn the game around, bunting is a useful skill to apply. When more runs are needed, it can be counterproductive.

Such was the case a week ago, when the Marines entered the top of the fifth inning trailing the host Eagles by a run at Tokyo Dome.

Nishioka doubled to open the inning. With no outs, the tying run on second and the heart of the order coming up, the Marines were primed for a big inning. Instead, manager Nishimura played for a tie.

Ogino sacrificed. He nearly beat the throw to first but still only managed to send Nishioka to third at the cost of a crucial out. With one out, the runner scored on a sacrifice fly to tie the game. Nishimura played for one run and got it.

Mission accomplished?

Despite a 2-2 tie on the scoreboard, the inning was a wasted opportunity.

There is a saying in the States that you should play for the win on the road and play for a tie at home, and Nishimura said the concept is well understood in Japan.

From 2006 to 2009, the score has been tied after 4-1/2 innings in 640 games. In those games, the visitors' winning percentage was .383. In 470 games, the visitors led by a run after 4-1/2. Those teams won at a .559 clip. That's a huge difference.

Nishimura's plan worked, but the Marines still wound up losing 8-2.

"I understand the numbers," he said. "But there are so many factors to consider: Who the pitchers are, how we hit them, how the game is flowing. If we were going to take the lead, we needed to score at least one run. I wanted to be sure of that."

But if you need two runs and can't try to get them with the heart of your order up and a man on second, when can you?


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