In baseball, you’ve probably seen it before: a batter squares around to lay down a bunt and is thrown out at first base, but another runner moves up to the next base.
Or a batter lofts a fly ball into the outfield which is caught, but it is deep enough to bring home a runner from third base. What you’ve seen is a sacrifice at work.
A sacrifice is a play where the batter commits an out to move a runner to the next base, often in the form of a bunt, or a fly ball that drives in a run. In these cases, the runner is not credited with an official at-bat, therefore not penalizing his batting average for moving up a runner.
In essence, a sacrifice is meant to reward a player for a so-called “productive out,” in which the batter is retired but helps advance the runner(s). Simplistically, this is the easiest way to explain a sacrifice, but it’s not quite that simple.
What Counts as a Sacrifice in Baseball?
In baseball, sacrifices are separated into two categories: sacrifice bunt (or sacrifice hit, abbreviated as SH, or SAC) and sacrifice fly (SF).
These essentially separate what is a deliberate attempt to make an out to move a runner (the bunt) or what is a more-or-less unintentional act in scoring a runner via a fly ball that still results in an out.
A batter is credited with a sacrifice bunt when he lays down a bunt, is retired at first base, and all runners advance at least one base safely. A sacrifice fly requires a batter to hit a fly ball that scores a runner from third base without the aid of an error.
As stated earlier, in either situation the batter is not credited with an official at-bat, so that his batting average is not hurt by deliberately making an out to score a run.
However, the batter is charged with a plate appearance, so his on-base percentage decreases.
One tricky aspect is that a batter doesn’t have to be put out to be credited with a sacrifice. If a batter lays down a bunt but reaches safely because of an error by the defense, he may be credited with a sacrifice, while reaching base on an error.
Likewise, on a sac fly, if the outfielder drops the ball, but is believed to be deep enough to score the run anyways, the batter will be credited with the sac fly.
On the other hand, other runners besides the batter can be put out on a sacrifice, though these are relatively rare. To do so, all runners would have to reach the next base safely.
However, if a runner elects to attempt to advance another base and is thrown out, the batter is still credited with a sacrifice, even if the runner’s mistake costs his team a second out on the play.
Also, if a batter lays down a bunt which may be intended as a sacrifice, but winds up beating the throw to first, he would likely be credited with a single instead of a sacrifice.
What Is a Productive Out in Baseball?
In this article, we’ve used the term “productive outs” to describe an out made that is considered “productive” because it advanced a runner to the next base. Sacrifice bunts and sacrifice flies both fall under this category.
While all sacrifices are considered productive outs, there are other forms of productive outs made by batters that are not considered sacrifices and are instead scored similarly to any other out.
In essence, this can come to intent. On fly balls, it simply comes down to this: if the runner(s) moves up and a run scores on a flyout, then it’s a sacrifice fly.
If a runner moves up a base on a flyout, but no one scores (without an error involved), then it’s a productive out, per se, but not a sacrifice. In the infield, the intent is the main factor, namely did the batter bunt or take a full swing.
When bunting, the batter intentionally taps the ball in front of home plate with the bat, which is usually done to move a runner over, unless done so to catch the defense off-guard.
With a productive out, a batter takes a normal swing, hits a ground ball, and is retired at first, but the runner(s) advances a base or possibly even scores.
In these cases of run-of-the-mill ground balls advancing runners, the batter is simply charged a hitless at-bat, though he does earn an RBI if a runner scores on a groundout.
In other words, while all sacrifices are productive outs, not all productive outs are sacrifices.
Sacrifice vs Fielder’s Choice
When it comes down to sacrifices and productive outs, there can be some confusion involved, and understandably so, though once you get used to it, it’s not too difficult.
Now, where it can get difficult is when you add in another element – the fielder’s choice.
A fielder’s choice is a play that, like a sacrifice, almost always results in an out, but the out is instead recorded against a runner on the bases, instead of the batter. On a fielder’s choice, the batter reaches base but is not credited with a sacrifice.
The most common instance where you’ll see a fielder’s choice is a double-play situation (runner on first, less than two outs), where a ground ball results in the runner being retired at second, but the batter reaches first safely.
This can also occur in bunting situations where a batter attempts to lay down a sacrifice bunt, but the bunt is a poor one, allowing a fielder to throw out a runner at either second or third.
In this case, the batter is not awarded a sacrifice, but instead a fielder’s choice, which in all situations are merely scored as a hitless at-bat.
One other situation where sacrifice bunts and fielder’s choices collide is the squeeze play, of which there are two types. On a “safety squeeze,” a runner tries to score from third base on a bunt but waits till the bunt is executed to run home to limit making an out at the plate.
On a “suicide squeeze,” the runner runs on the pitch, making a successful bunt essential to avoid disaster.
On many squeezes, the bunt is put down in front of the plate and a fielder (usually the pitcher) attempts to make a play at the plate, which usually allows the batter to reach first, regardless of the runner scoring or not.
Now, if the runner scores on a squeeze, the batter is usually given a sacrifice, regardless of whether he was retired at first or not.
However, if he executes an excellent bunt where he reaches first and could’ve beat a throw to first without a play at the plate, he may be given a hit. In both cases, the batter is awarded an RBI.
On the other hand, if the batter gets the bunt down, but the runner is thrown out at the plate, the batter instead reaches on a fielder’s choice and is not credited with a sacrifice.
How Common Are Sacrifices in Baseball?
Because sacrifices can only be obtained in certain scenarios, there are events related to where baserunners are, the number of outs, the score, and often what kind of hitter you have at the plate that determines whether you’ll see a sacrifice or not.
The frequency of sacrifice bunts has steadily decreased in the 21st century, with 2019 seeing 0.16 sac bunts per game, or about one per team every six games. Sacrifice fly rates are steadier due to being more random, with 0.24 per game in 2019, or about one per team every four games.
With the rise of analytics, numbers have increasingly shown that, especially in a home run-centric climate with rising strikeouts, deliberately giving up outs is foolish, leading to the decrease in bunts.
In the early 20th century, sacrifice bunts were common, with over one per team, per game each year from 1905-30, peaking twice at 1.30.
By 1950, that number was down to 0.5 per game and slowly declined to 0.34 per game by 1997. This mark was very close to where the number settled until 2011 when the sacrifice bunt rate fell faster than it had since the 1930s.
As of 2019, the majority of sacrifice bunts are executed in the National League, where pitchers (for now) still bat.
This is because most pitchers are notoriously poor hitters, so whenever there is a runner on base with less than two outs, they are usually asked to try to bunt the runner over rather than risk a strikeout or a double play.
Sure enough, in 2019 the National League had 13 of the 15 teams who laid down the most sacrifice bunts.
Additionally, the MLB leader in sac bunts was a pitcher, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who laid down 15 sac bunts in just 65 plate appearances, while American League leader Leury Garcia compiled his AL-best 11 sacrifices in 618 plate appearances.
In 2020, both teams used a universal designated hitter, meaning that pitchers did not hit in either league for the first time. As a result, the rate of sacrifice bunts fell by more than half, to just 0.07 per team, per game.
Throughout 60 games, the average team laid down just four sacrifice bunts and three of them did not record a sac bunt. Meanwhile, when it comes to sacrifice flies, they are a lot more random since it is quite hard to truly control the flight of a baseball.
Yes, a team may want a sacrifice fly in a certain situation, but the batter may instead hit a double, or knock it over the wall. Or he might instead pop it up on the infield and no one advances. Therefore, sac fly rates are steadier over time.
As stated earlier, there were 0.24 sac flies per team, per game in 2019.
That ties for the lowest figure since the American League introduced the designated hitter in 1973, though that has more to do with teams moving away from a strategy that involves moving runners around the bases and trying to instead draw walks and then hit homers (more or less).
With that being said, most full seasons (we’re going to throw out 2020’s abbreviated season for this) since sacrifice flies became an official statistic in 1954 have seen between 0.23 and 0.32 sac flies per team each game.
This shows that sacrifice flies are much lower variance over time (admittedly less time, though) than sacrifice bunts.
We can see that the lowest numbers of sacrifice flies mostly occurred in the 1960s, which was the lowest-scoring period since 1954 (fewer baserunners = fewer opportunities to score runs).
Meanwhile, six of the seven highest sac fly rates on record occurred between 1993-2000, which is the highest-scoring period in that time frame.
I guess what this goes to show is that overall offensive trends can help predict how many sacrifice flies you’ll see, while the number of sac bunts continues to fall. Either way, you’ll certainly see them both, just not a whole lot.
Who Has the Most Career Sacrifice Bunts?
The career record for sacrifice bunts is 512, set by Hall of Famer Eddie Collins, who played from 1905-30.
Who Has the Most Sacrifice Bunts in a Season?
The record for most sacrifice bunts in a season is a staggering 67, set by Ray Chapman of Cleveland in 1917.
Who Has the Most Career Sacrifice Flies?
Eddie Murray holds the career record for sacrifice flies, lofting 128 sacrifice flies from 1977-1997, though ironically enough, he never led the league in that category.
Who Has the Most Sacrifice Flies in a Season?
The record for most sacrifice flies in a season is 19, set by Gil Hodges in 1954, the first year sac flies were tallied.
What Is Tagging Up in Baseball?
Tagging up refers to a runner staying on their base until a fly out is recorded and then trying to advance to the next base.
The runner can’t leave the base until the ball is caught or they risk getting called out. You’ll see runners frequently tag up from third on deep fly balls.