The Nationals are bunting a lot already this year. Last season, they notched 19 bunt hits, tied for the 11th highest total in baseball. Entering Thursday’s games, the Nationals already have a major league-leading 11 bunt hits in 22 games. The next closest team, the Royals, have only five bunt hits.
Wednesday night was the best example of the Nationals’ new-found love of bunting under Manager Matt Williams. Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon and Bryce Harper all attempted bunts against Angels starter Jered Weaver. Only Espinosa proved successful, and he later stole second and eventually scored — all because he created the opportunity by throwing off the defense.
The Nationals coaching staff has told players this season to free to use the bunt when appropriate. Espinosa leads the majors with five bunt hits, and both he and his manager are happy about it.
“It applies pressure to the defense certainly,” Williams said before Thursday’s game. “If that defense has to play in a little bit, it opens a little bit bigger hole for them potentially. It’s available to them at all times. The fact that they’re not afraid to do it is great. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, I know it’s there, but I’m not comfortable with it. I’d rather swing.’ But they work on it. They work on it in batting practice every day. They’ve worked on it all spring. If it’s available, why not take advantage of it and get on base. And be on base for the next guy coming to the plate. I just think it’s smart. I think it’s a good way to play baseball.”
Fans may cringe when they see capable hitters resorting to a bunt for a base hit. But so far, the Nationals have actually been successful and efficient in their bunt attempts. According to data provided by Harry Pavlidis of Pitch Info, the Nationals’ hitters (excluding pitchers) were the second most successful at notching a bunt hit (0.64 hits per attempt) in the majors, behind the Tigers (0.75 hit/attempt).
The Nationals’ non-pitchers have attempted 14 bunts, tied for the third most, and have the most hits (nine). Behind Espinosa, Harper and Rendon both have two bunt hits each. The Tigers’ non-pitchers have three bunt hits in four attempts.
“I like that [Williams] gives us freedom to do it more,”‘ Espinosa said. “It moves the defense for you, even if you don’t bunt. You’ve got the corners and you’ve got the second baseman cheating there. I might squirt a base hit through. It’s just part of my game.”
Bunting with two strikes, however, isn’t an ideal time. Harper tried to bunt for a base hit with two strikes in the sixth inning of Wednesday’s game with no outs, a runner on first and trailing by one run. Harper has occasionally tried to bunt for base hits in the past, but he is primarily a power hitter. Williams stood behind Harper’s decision after the game, saying that he appreciated Harper’s efforts to try to get on base and that it’s possible to get a bunt hit with two strikes.
The statistics, however, don’t bear that out. In 14 bunt attempts by non-pitchers this season with two strikes (which does not include batters taking a pitch for a ball), only twice has a batter notched a hit, according to Pavlidis’s data.
“We’ve had some that have been popped over the mound and things like that,” Williams said. “They’re certainly not trying to do that. But that application of pressure is good for us. That’s the way we have to play the game. … It’s aggressive thought. It’s not passive thought. It’s not negative thought. It’s ‘Hey, I’m going to get on base and make something happen.’ I love it.”