Home Runs and Bunts for Hits: A Different 20-10 Season

Analytically-focused baseball hobbyists are not supposed to fall for the temptation of round-numbered accomplishments. Sure, round numbers are easy to remember (40-40 is easier to remember than, say, 34-41 or something), but over time they can appear to have a meaning or value beyond simply being an arbitrary, if memorable, landmark.

That is all a qualification to this post. When looking into top recent single-season bunts for hits numbers, I ran across many of the usual suspects — Juan Pierre, Willy Taveras, and the like. Actually, it started when I was checking out Starling Marte‘s season. It has been a weird one for the Pirates’ left fielder. He has been a key element in the Pirates’ run to the playoffs this year despite not having the typical left field offensive profile. He relies heavily on getting drilled to get on base. But even if one has serious doubts about his defensive numbers, he has had a nice year at the plate (.282/.343/.447, 122 wRC+).

What also stood out is that he has both 12 home runs and 10 bunts for hits this season. It is a different variation on a power-speed combination (and with 37 steals, Marte obviously has plenty of speed), but is perhaps more interesting. It is easy to understand why Pierre, who has never hit more than three home runs in a season, would make bunting for hits such a big part of his game. Marte is not a monster power hitter, but with a .165 ISO he is not a peashooter.

I decided to push things further: how often have players had 20 home runs and 10 bunts for hits in a single season? I found four recent examples.

It is not as if a player with decent power should never bunt — the realistic threat of a bunt keeps infielders from playing too far back, there is the chance of an error, and sometimes powerful pull hitters have found success bunting away from the shift. But how often does this power/bunt combination occur? Using round numbers, I decided to take a look at player seasons with at least double digits in home runs and bunts for hits. Since 2002 (the first year for which FanGraphs has batted ball data), it has happened 20 times. But 10 home runs is not that many for a season in modern baseball, so I (arbitrarily) upped the ante to 20 home runs and 10 bunts for hits.

In no particular order (except perhaps in reverse order of my surprise at finding them on this list), here they are.

Corey Patterson, 2004: 24 home runs, 17 bunts for hits (48.6 percent), .266/.320/.452 (94 wRC+). I can’t say I expected Patterson to be on this list, but it hardly surprised me. It somehow just seems fitting. Patterson raised expectations and disappointed among Cubs fans for much of the early 2000s. Some felt he was really “breaking out” in 2003 before he suffered a season-ending injury. In the aftermath, his 2004 seemed disappointing, but if you bought his performance in the field, it was actually pretty good.

Patterson’s 2004 season has the second-most homers and the most bunts of any on this list. He also stole 32 bases. It was a paradigmatic Patterson display in some ways: raw tools (power and speed) let down by his terrible plate approach. It was not until 2005 that he totally fell off a cliff for Chicago, though. Bunting did seem to make sense for Patterson despite his power. He was not likely to walk, and while his swing generated power, it also did not make contact at close to an average rate. Throwing in some bunts probably made sense, especially since when he did make contact he had enough power to keep teams from playing in.

The 2004 season was the first time he really started bunting for hits with frequency. As noted, after 2004 he basically fell off of a cliff (he did have a nice 2006 revival with Baltimore). However, although he never hit 10 home runs in a season again, Patterson did manage to have double-digit bunts for hits every year from 2004-2008. For his career he had a 41.5 percent hit rate on bunts, and given his trouble getting on base otherwise, it is tough to argue that Patterson bunted too often.

Danny Espinosa, 2011: 21 home runs, 11 bunts for hits (44 percent), .236/.323/.414 (103 wRC+). Back in 2011 and 2012, Danny Espinosa seemed like another promising young Nationals infielder. Injuries, terrible hitting when on the field both in the majors and minors, and Anthony Rendon have put Espinosa’s role in doubt, but he really did have a nice year in 2011. Like Patterson, Espinosa had serious contact issues. He was no Bobby Abreu when it came to taking walks, but unlike Patterson, he was right around average. He did not have Patterson’s raw power, but it was better than average and after hitting 21 homers in 2011, he hit 17 in 2012. Espinosa’s low number of line drives kept his average on balls in play down, so combined with a merely average walk rate, his on-base percentage was not so great. But he added in 11 bunts for hits in 2011, which definitely helped his value. In 2012, he did not bunt as often, perhaps teams were more prepared for it or the situation simply did not call for it.

Ryan Zimmerman, 2006: 20 home runs, 10 bunts for hits (83.3 percent), .287/.351/.471 (112 wRC+). It is hard to say whether this entry or the next surprised me more. As a young player, Zimmerman was primarily hailed for his fantastic-looking glove and his above-average bat whose potential was fulfilled in seasons like 2009 and 2010. The power was already developing in 2006, as he hit 20 home runs and had a .184 ISO. It is strange and surprising to look back and see that Zimmerman also bunted for 10 hits. He has never come close to that since then, either in his good or bad years. It is probably just one of the somewhat random things, but was fun to come across.

Melvin Mora, 2005: 27 home runs, 12 bunts for hits (50 percent), .283/.348/.474 (120 wRC+). When I wrote a retrospective on the occasion of Mora’s retirement, I noted how his career had an unexpected arc, especially since he had his first really awesome season in his age-31 season, which was 2003. At that time, I did not notice that Mora was pretty good at bunting for hits, even in seasons when he hit for power. For his career, he had about a 40 percent hit rate on bunts, and 2005 was his best season for number of bunt hits with 12. Likely coincidentally, it was also one of his two best seasons for home runs, as he hit 27 (he also hit 27 in 2004). In his later-than-usual prime, Mora was a very good all-around offensive hitter — he hit for average and power and reached base at a good rate. To that list we should add bunting for hits successfully.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Nats fans certainly have talked about Ryan Zimmerman’s bunting, especially wondering why he stopped since it could prevent the infield from cheating on him. As I recall, Frank Robinson wasn’t a big fan of Zimm bunting back in 2006, but it’s been awhile, so I might be misremembering. But the subject certainly has come up on Nats blogs over the years, at least until his recent injuries have led to more prominent thins to worry about.