There are situations where these one-run strategies are the right plays, usually very late in very close games. Also, these plays are more advantageous when your offense is weak. If your hitters have a low on-base percentage or don't hit many homers, the sacrifice is less damaging because the opportunity cost is less. And if your bullpen is a lock-down group, then taking the safer path to a one-run lead makes sense, even if you foreclose the chance of a bigger lead.
On the other hand, if your hitters get on base a lot and hit a lot of homers, the last thing you want to do is to take the bat out of their hands by giving away outs. And if your bullpen is full of arsonists, then you need to always play for the the biggest leads possible.
So given all that, why on Earth is Manny ramping up his use of one-run strategies now, just as he finally has a pretty good line-up but an historically bad bullpen?
Let's look at Sunday's game, when he sacrificed Cristian Guzman in the bottom of the seventh with runners on first and second, no outs and the Scats down one.
Here's the summary of Manny's decision from Chico's gamer:
Take, for instance, Dunn's seventh inning, bases-loaded, game-saving bash. Two batters earlier, with men on first and second and no outs, Acta called for Cristian Guzmán to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The potential benefits made the choice seem obvious: Advance the runners, take the out and let the heart of a resurgent Nationals batting order come through.OK, so I realize that this worked out for Manny in this case. (Give me credit for not just arguing 20/20 hindsight!) But let's say Dunn strikes out here, which, for all his wonderful power, we know he's done more often than anyone in baseball over the last five years (despite Boz's erroneously calling Dunn "double-play prone," this in fact isn't the main concern--Dunn strikes out so much that he isn't that much of a GDP risk).
But Acta also had to consider that he was taking the bat out of the hands of Guzmán, who entered the game batting .357, and he was opening first base, which would allow Baltimore to intentionally walk Ryan Zimmerman, who was batting .348. Plus, the Orioles could bring in a left-hander to face Dunn, a left-handed batter. Lefty pitchers typically perform better against lefty batters.
Last season, Acta said, he probably would have let Guzmán swing away. These days, though, he can afford to set off such chain reactions. Guzmán moved the runners over. Zimmerman took his free pass to first. The Orioles brought in lefty Jamie Walker. And on a 2-2 slider, Dunn crushed the ball into the left field bullpen, providing the margin for the Nationals' 8-5 victory.
"It's just a different story," Acta said. "You want to walk Zimmerman? Good, then pitch to Dunn. That's something we didn't have here in the past."
Now it's bases loaded and two outs, the Scats still down one. Josh Willingham due up. OK, he's hitting a healthy 110 OPS+ this year, so we still have a decent chance. We'll say he gets a base hit. Run scores, tie game.
Next up you have the horrid trio of Ronnie Belliard (OBP .221), Austin Kearns (.146/.226/.208 in his last 53 PA), and Wil Nieves, followed by the pitcher's spot. This firewall of automatic outs basically ensures that there will be no big inning. Unless Dunn comes through with an extra base hit, the Nationals will very likely end the seventh tied or maybe up one.
By sacrificing Guzman and setting up the Zimmerman walk, Manny took a prime situation for a big inning--two men on, no outs, and the heart of his order due up to face a bad Orioles bullpen--and turned it into a make-or-break at bat for Dunn.
Dunn came through and bailed out his manager. Good for him. Still, Manny's call was the wrong one.
And then perhaps more troubling is the fact that, as he says himself, he wouldn't have done this in past years when he had much weaker hitting teams and better bullpens (at least in 2007; 2008 was pretty bad). This is the exact opposite of what he should be doing. With more power, he should be hoarding outs and baserunners, waiting for Earl Weaver's best friend, the 3-run homer.
What bums me out most about this isn't just that he's making dumb decisions now, but that he doesn't seem to understand why he was right to avoid one-run strategies in the first place. It's looking more and more like the reasons I liked Manny in the first place weren't really there.