Few tactics in baseball fuel more debate than the bunt. The sabermetric community has argued against the bunt for decades, with its most famous face, Bill James, telling NPR in 2011 that bunting is “usually a waste of time.”
“I mean, if you think about it, [a] bunt is the only play in baseball that both sides applaud,” James said. He explained further: “The home team applauds because they get an out, and the other team applauds because they get a base. So what does that tell you? Nobody’s really winning here.”
And it was around that time that the bunt started to decline in usage. For example, bunts accounted for 2 percent of plate appearances in 1993 but only 1.7 percent in 2011, at the time of James’s comments. There has been a steady decline ever since.
James would later confess in his Guide to Baseball Managers, published in 2014, that he was “no longer convinced that the sacrifice bunt is a poor percentage play,” but the fact remains it is still a scourge to many in the analytics community. And as more front offices became believers in data, we saw fewer teams trying to bunt for hits. In 2017, bunt hits were way down. According to data from TruMedia, there were 232 bunt singles last year from March to June, the fewest since 2008, the first year data is available. This season, there were 226.
But it might be time to bring the bunt back, especially with more and more teams employing the shift to neutralize the league’s most predictable hitters.
The infield shift became part of the baseball landscape in the 1920s but didn’t gain prominence until the mid-1940s, when Cleveland Indians manager Lou Boudreau famously put six fielders on the right side of second base in an effort to slow down Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. The number of defensive shifts increased nearly 900 percent from 2010 to 2017, expanding from 3,323 to 33,218. There have already been 22,683 shifts deployed in 2018.
The shift has been used so many times that super agent Scott Boras called it “discriminatory” to left-handed hitters, with one of his most famous clients, Bryce Harper, struggling mightily against the tactic in addition to seeing it much more frequently. In 2015, a year he was unanimously named the National League MVP, Harper faced the shift in 126 of his 654 plate appearances (19.3 percent), and against those shifts he boasted a batting average on balls in play of .384 while creating runs at a rate that was 48 percent above average after adjusting for league and park effects (148 wRC+). This year, he has seen the shift in 176 of his 392 plate appearances (44.9 percent), resulting in a batting average on balls in play of just .233 while creating runs at a rate that is 61 percent less than the league average (39 wRC+).
The best bet to countering this defensive alignment — hitting a groundball to the opposite side of the field — is great in theory but difficult to put into motion. Major league batters have hit 4,754 ground balls this season against the shift; well less than a quarter of those (11.1 percent) have been to the opposite field. And just 23 of those opposite-field grounders have produced a run. If a player could hit an opposite-field groundball on command against the shift, that would be ideal, because batters have a .531 average on such plays. But baseball doesn’t really work that way.
“That play is easy, and it gets screwed up all the time,” St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Matt Carpenter told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick. “Guys can’t hit a groundball when all they have to do is hit a groundball to score a run.”
The antidote, then, would appear to be simple: Depending on the positioning of the fielders, bunt for a hit.
“I’ve tried to bunt a few times, and I’ve had a few successes,” Kyle Seager of the Seattle Mariners told Crasnick. “But the third baseman is usually still in there for the first two strikes, so the bunt is not as big a factor as it could be.”
Again, it depends on the situation.
In 2015, there were 59 bunt attempts away from the shift, and hitters were successful 73 percent of the time. In 2018, there already have been 62 bunt attempts away from the shift, with better results (a 76 percent success rate). A soft groundball to the opposite field against the shift, by comparison, is successful less than half the time (49 percent). So, if used selectively, as James advocated in 2014, the bunt could again become a valuable weapon against the shift.
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