Baseball has dived headfirst into its own information era, and one of the consequences of all the information is the rise of defensive infield shifts. Certain batters have demonstrated certain tendencies, so certain teams have started combating this by moving infielders around to areas most likely to get balls in play. The most familiar version of the shift is against a left-handed hitter, and it involves three infielders around first and second and one infielder basically playing shortstop. That alignment allows for screenshots like this one:
The end result of that at-bat was a double. More specifically: the end result of that at-bat was a bunt double, down the third-base line, against the shift. The Red Sox handed Robinson Cano a free base. He took two of them. So the question everyone arrives at: why doesn’t this happen more? Why don’t people bunt against the shift all the damned time?
Consider: shifts are on the rise. Consider, also, this:
Jeff found that seven players successfully bunted a ball in play against a shift more than once. Of those seven, just one player reached base four or more times.
Mathematically, it seems so obvious. The overwhelming number of grounders in play are pulled. The shift is designed to turn more balls in play into outs. But the shift also leaves a gaping hole in the direction of third base, and with an even adequate bunt, it’s an easy single. There’s no such thing as a bunt triple or a bunt homer, but isn’t an almost automatic hit better than a possible hit and a probable out? Tangotiger has calculated in the past that it’s a good idea to bunt if you can be successful a little over half the time. How is it possible that we don’t see this more?
A common explanation is that hitters are stubborn, or prideful, or what have you. Also, the hitters most likely to be shifted will often be the hitters with the least bunting experience, so that’s something they need to work to develop. But, why not develop the skill? As is, when a hitter successfully bunts against the shift, he looks like a genius. It should be that, when a hitter successfully bunts against the shift, he looks like a normal person with normal reasoning skills. In theory, it shouldn’t take smarts to bunt. In theory, it should take the opposite of smarts to not bunt, and there’s a difference.
But, all right, let’s dig deeper. At present, hitters don’t often bunt against the shift, and our explanation is that hitters are stubborn and stupid. When dealing with something that seems so obvious, maybe the safest conclusion is that it isn’t really that obvious after all. And I’m increasingly leaning in that direction. What the issue boils down to is that bunting isn’t an easy thing. I’ve heard it from analysts, I’ve heard it from hitters, and I’ve heard it from pitchers. Bunting well is easier than swinging well. Swinging well is incredibly hard.
It seems like bunting should be simple. You’re just catching the ball with the bat, right? When I played baseball, bunting drills were the only hitting drills where I could do anything. I had a much easier time with it. But I wasn’t bunting against major-league pitchers, and if you’re bunting against the shift, you’re doing a little more than putting the bat in front of the ball. You’re also aiming and pushing, and pitches are fast and bats are cylindrical.
You know who’s been a prolific bunter? Emilio Bonifacio. It’s one of the ways he’s tried to make the most of his speed. Over the past six years, spanning the PITCHf/x era, he’s fourth in baseball in bunt attempts. Let’s check in on a game Bonifacio played against the Mariners last September. In that game, which went to extra innings, Bonifacio tried to bunt four times.
Three fouls. Eventually, a successful sacrifice. On bunt attempts in the game, Bonifacio was 1-for-4, with three not even entering play.
But that’s one game, and if I’m going to be honest, it’s a game that was selected specifically to make a frequent bunter look bad. Of far more value would be league-wide numbers, and as it turns out, bunting really is difficult. And that’s just as far as bunting the ball between the white lines.
I collected data from between 2008-2013. I classified things simply: a good bunt is a fair ball in play, and a bad bunt is a foul bunt or a missed bunt. Of course, not all fair bunts are good bunts. Of course, this misses out on bunts that were pulled back at the last second. This tracks only bunts that were committed to. Over the six years, there’s a sample of more than 36,000.
- Overall: 49.7% fair bunts
- Pitchers: 49.9%
- Non-Pitchers: 49.6%
The sample for pitchers is about 10,000. The sample for non-pitchers is about 26,000. There’s basically no difference. About half the time they’ve committed to a bunt, they’ve bunted the ball in play. That means that, half the time, they’ve messed up.
I decided to look at individual players, and compare guys who bunt often against guys who bunt infrequently. I set the following thresholds:
- Frequent bunters: bunt attempts on 2.5% or more of all pitches
- Infrequent bunters: bunt attempts on 0.5% or less of all pitches
The frequent bunters bunted the ball fair 49.5% of the time. The infrequent bunters bunted the ball fair 46.1% of the time. I should note before I forget that I excluded pitchers from this. There’s a clear advantage to bunting more often, in terms of bunt success, but it’s also pretty small, and even the upper-tier bunters, as a group, bunt poorly a lot.
Naturally, there are better and worse individual bunters. Jeff Keppinger has bunted the ball fair 29 times out of 36 attempts. Adam Everett‘s at 36 of 47. Ramon Santiago has bunted the ball fair 97 times out of 137 attempts. Placido Polanco‘s been successful more than twice as often as he’s been unsuccessful. Chris Getz has a success rate of 68%.
Meanwhile, Casey McGehee‘s 0-for-9. Dan Uggla‘s 2-for-16. Bobby Abreu went 4-for-29. Shin-Soo Choo shows up at 18 out of 85. Rajai Davis is 42-for-156. Bunting is a skill, and as with any skill, there’s a distribution in talent. But what’s made abundantly clear is that nothing about bunting is automatic, even for the most prolific bunters in the league. You’re still trying to bunt a really fast and moving baseball with a stick that isn’t that big.
And again, successful bunts, here, aren’t necessarily successful bunts. They’re just fair bunts, or even foul bunts that were popped up and caught. This looks at all bunt attempts, including sacrifices and bunt attempts for hits, and sacrificing might be easier since you have to worry a little less about aim and contact quality. If you want to bunt against the shift, as a hitter, you have to bunt the ball down the line, and you have to bunt it far enough away from the catcher and pitcher. And if you’re a slugger — the sort of hitter most likely to be shifted — you’re going to need to put more distance between the ball and other people than a guy who can run fast. It seems like bunting should be a walk in the park. The evidence suggests it’s very much not, and the more you think about it, the more that makes sense.
So why don’t we see more bunting against the shift? Certainly, there has to be some element of stubbornness. But it’s also just a hard thing to do, even with a lot of practice, which most shifted hitters don’t have. A foul bunt or a missed bunt is just a strike, a strike that also makes the defense aware of the bunt possibility. The pitcher, as well, becomes aware of the possibility, and might throw less buntable pitches. The math might still work out in the pro-bunt favor — I’m not close to smart enough to work all that out. But I’ve never seen bunt success rates before, and I wasn’t expecting 50%. That’s a pretty low success rate, for bunts that aren’t even necessarily successful.
And against even a hypothetical awesome bunter, you can just move the guy playing short to shallow third, and then you’re not going to see many grounders hit to where the shortstop would be. And the bunt would be all but taken away.
For years, it’s seemed so obvious to me. When Kyle Seager successfully bunted for a single against the shift last summer, it felt to me like a top-ten Mariners moment. If the defense wants to give the hitter an easy hit, the hitter should take the easy hit, without question. I could never understand how hitters could be so stubborn in the face of a potentially high batting average. Turns out there’s no such thing as an easy hit after all. Oh, bunt singles against the shift look easy when they’re successful, but so do Chris Davis home runs. Most of the time, Chris Davis doesn’t homer.
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