There are a lot of reasons the White Sox lost last night – they really miss Adam Dunn, Fister is a good pitcher who pitched well, Peavy hung a few fastballs that missed their spots and good hitters hit them out of the park. It happens. In many ways this 5-3 loss was unremarkable. In many ways the loss was out of the control of Robin Ventura.
However, Ventura made several specific choices that may very well have cost them the game – and this was a game that would have meant a 4 game division lead with a victory, as opposed to the 2 game division lead the White Sox currently possess. The two choices that stand out to me as appalling are the choice to bring in Francisco Liriano to start the top of the 8th and calling for Youkilis to try to bunt in the bottom of the 8th.
When Liriano entered the game the White Sox trailed 3-2. Trailing by one run is not ideal, but it is still a high leverage situation – you have a pretty good chance of scoring one run off of your opponent’s bullpen generally speaking. Given the context of when this is in the year, the expanded rosters giving you extra arms, and your opponent this particular 3-2 deficit was even more of a high leverage situation. Neither Matt Thornton nor Jesse Crain had pitched in the prior game, and Brett Myers had already come in and pitched effectively, throwing three straight strikes against the only batter he faced, and Myers had not pitched on September 10th either. Thornton, Crain, and Myers all have far better peripherals than Liriano – K/BB ratios of 3.92, 2.38, and 2.50 on the year respectively. Liriano’s sitting at a quite poor 1.84 on the year, as he is walking 5.2 batters per 9, and an even more ghastly 6.0 on the year for the White Sox.
We all know what happened – Liriano faced three batters, got none of them out, and by the time Crain managed to put out the fire the White Sox trailed 5-2. Ventura was clearly willing to lean on Crain as he wound up finishing the 9th as well – in dominant fashion, striking out the side. Liriano had been on a starter’s rhythm and warm up pattern and quite frankly has no idea where the ball is going. You had three vastly superior pitchers ready in a critical situation and for some perplexing reason Ventura opted to go to Liriano and it cost them the margin of defeat.
The White Sox had a chance to erase that error immediately in the bottom of the inning. Although it was through some luck on balls in play, Alexei, Beckham, and de Aza led off the bottom of the 8th with three straight singles, closing the score to 5-3. Next, Ventura did one of the dumbest things I have ever seen and asked Kevin Youkilis to bunt the runners over from 1st and 2nd to 2nd and 3rd.
Kevin Youkilis has never successfully executed a sacrifice bunt in his life. I suspect that Francona and Epstein had better sense than to try it. There are game situations and personnel wherein bunting is appropriate. If it had been Rey Olmedo up and Konerko on deck I would have no issues with Ventura putting down the bunt – it increases your likelihood of scoring. However, Youkilis has a career OBP of .386. By opting to bunt you are erasing any possibility of Youkilis advancing the runners without making an out. Naturally, Youkilis looked incredibly uncomfortable trying to get it down, fell behind 0-2, and then struck out swinging once the pitcher was in a dominant count. Youkilis’ greatest strength as a ballplayer is his selectivity and approach at the plate. By calling for a bunt you’re throwing that out the window and using your player for the wrong purpose. If you want to dig a ditch you wear work boots and overalls, not a tuxedo. If you’re trying to drive a golf ball for distance you use a driver not a putter.
When you analyze a bunt you have to look at the opportunity cost as well as evaluating whether or not the bunt will succeed. Bunts are not automatic, as White Sox fans have learned to their sorrow, and calling for a bunt here was essentially giving up any chance that Youkilis could get a hit or a walk, achieving the goals of the bunt without losing the out. It looks even more ridiculous when you realize it was Dewayne Wise on deck after Youkilis. Wise has had a nice little run the last few weeks, but if the White Sox honestly have decided that a decade of data that says Wise can’t hit is irrelevant, and a decade of data saying, “Youkilis walks a lot” doesn’t mean anything, then this organization is doomed.
Many things in a baseball game are beyond control of either the players or manager, but which pitchers are used and whether and when to bunt are obviously within the control of the manager. I am aware that had Crain been brought in to start the 8th, or had Youkilis been allowed to hit the odds are still against the White Sox winning that game — but their chances would have been a whole lot better, and Ventura essentially sabotaged any hope of a comeback.