An Area of Improvement for Don Mattingly

I, like most of the writers here, am not a huge Don Mattingly fan. I’m not in the “fire Don Mattingly now” camp, but if the Dodgers do get rid of him at this afternoon’s press conference I won’t be shedding any tears. Still, in the comments section and on twitter I have been very critical of his in-game decision making. Thus, it’s only fair that I point out something that he did well this season.

One of the main critiques of Mattingly’s strategy is his apparent love of bunting. There was the famous failed bunt which turned into a Juan Uribe home run in 2013’s NLDS. Less happily, the A.J. Ellis failed bunt in 2012 Game 161. This season, there was the Joc Pederson bunt in the 11th inning against the Nationals. It’s a reputation which Mattingly has fairly earned.

Even if Mattingly’s so-called love of bunting is real, there was a significant shift this season. Below is a table covering some information on Dodger non-pitcher bunts since the beginning of Mattingly’s tenure in 2011. The number of bunts and NL rank are pretty self-explanatory (if you don’t like bunts, a lower rank is better). WPA means win probability added, and reflects that sometimes bunting late in the game isn’t a terrible idea. RE24 is raw run expectancy, so it ignores game context and instead focuses on the change in total offense caused by the bunts.

Year Non-pitcher bunts NL rank WPA on bunts Number of negative WPA bunts RE24 on sacrifice hits
2011 38 4  -0.32 28 -4.05
2012 31 5  -0.09 18 -2.44
2013 31 5  +0.08 18 -2.39
2014 15 14  -0.07 10 -1.37

In 2014, Mattingly cut his non-pitcher bunts in half. The Dodgers were in the top five in non-pitcher bunts in each of Mattingly’s first three seasons, but this year only the Nationals bunted less than the Dodgers. The overall WPA on bunts has held relatively steady over the past three seasons (2013 got a +0.23 WPA boost on an error during a late inning Skip Schumaker bunt), but the overall run expectancy has improved significantly.

The bunts this season were well allocated, too. Three of them were by Dee Gordon, who is more likely than most to beat out the throw. Two were by Yasiel Puig (one of which forced a throwing error), and those were likely Puig bunting on his own. If we just count the number of “hurtful” bunts (negative WPA), the number in 2014 was down to 10, almost half of what it was before. It only builds up to a few runs per year, but it’s way better than it was before.

That’s not to say that Mattingly has been perfect in this area. We all remember the bunt against the Nationals this year, which led to an intentional walk of Matt Kemp to get to Drew Butera. WPA actually liked that bunt (+0.03), but WPA doesn’t know who is batting when. Still, that’s the only memorable bad bunt of the season. In 2013, 2012, and 2011, there were multiple that stuck out. Mattingly’s shift in managerial style with regard to bunting coincides with the switch from Trey Hillman to Tim Wallach as bench coach. Hillman was notoriously old-fashioned while managing the Royals, and Wallach doesn’t really have a reputation one way or the other. The reduction in bad bunts could be related to this switch.

As Joe Maddon‘s name swirls in managerial speculation, people like to dream on his managerial style. It’s worth noting, then, that the Rays bunted with non-pitchers 42 times this season, the second highest rate in the majors and nearly triple what the Dodgers did this season. As August Fagerstrom noted on Fangraphs in August, the Rays were also poor at getting the bunt down when they tried. The grass is always greener, but in terms of management of bunts in 2014, Mattingly was better.

Like I said at the top of this post, I’m no Mattingly fan. But it’s fair to note when he does something right. His bullpen management is still a mess, and he does things that make us scratch our heads frequently. Bunt management is ultimately a minor part of Mattingly’s overall impact on the Dodgers (benching Puig in an elimination game has a much more significant impact). But now it has been noted. Good job, Don.

About Daniel Brim

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Daniel Brim grew up in the Los Angeles area but doesn't live there anymore. He still watches the Dodgers and writes about them sometimes.