Courtesy of a post on EconLog last summer, THC ran across a brilliant piece on Fungoes, a St Louis Cardinal sabermetrics blog. The brilliance is not so much in the conclusion, pointing out that the sacrifice bunt is often not a wise strategy but in the author tying it directly to Frederic Bastiat's 1850 essay That Which Is Seen And That Which Is Unseen, a work that is legendary in the field of economics.
Bastiat was a French economist who did not play baseball but his essay is best known for the parable of the broken window which the author of the Fungoes piece describes:
While at first glance, a shopkeeper’s broken window appears to a be boon to the economy, insofar as it gives the glazier work (that which is seen), the reality is that the shopkeeper could’ve spent his money on something that left him materially better off (that which is unseen).
In Bastiat's essay he goes on to point out the in repairing the window the shopkeeper has spent six francs "and has neither more nor less than he had before, the enjoyment of a window" and then if "we suppose the window not to have been broken, he would have spent six francs on shoes, and would have had at the same time the enjoyment of a pair of shows and of a window".
Therefore society "has lost the value of the broken window" leading to the general conclusion that "society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed . . . to break, to spoil, to waste, is not to encourage national labour".
In Bastiat's example it is the shoemaker who is unseen and suffers and his point is that we need to take adequate time to see both what is unseen, which often is more subtle and takes more time, as well as what is seen. In particular, his essay lays out the problems with public policy when the unseen is not taken into account.
So, what's this have to do with the sacrifice bunt? As Fungoes points out:
. . . one of the reasons that it’s difficult for fans and managers to see any problem with it is that they focus on that which is seen: in the event of a “successful” bunt, a runner moves one base closer to homeIt was only with the development of the analytic tools of sabermetrics since the 1980s that the unseen aspects of the sacrifice bunt have become clearer and quantified.
(Mike Matheny, Cardinals Manager)
The problem with the bunt isn’t that it might marginally improve the team’s situation. But rather, it’s the opportunity forgone, since that advancing doesn’t happen in a vacuum or without cost. And it’s the cost that is the unseen part . . . the reality is that outs are a precious commodity. When a team sacrifice bunts, it virtually guarantees an out
This means that the team forgoes the possibility of something better happening, such as reaching base. In the case of Jay, who has a career .352 OBP, those odds are decent — or at least more decent than the sure odds of a sac bunt. And that’s the reason why no sacrifice bunt by the Cardinals this year has positively impacted the team’s win expectancy.
So let's play ball and apply some sabermetric thinking to public policy.