All Hail the New Bunt King?

On April 24, Danny Espinosa had a remarkable game. He bunted for a hit and had a solo home run to the left-field corner. The bunt was the remarkable part.

Danny Espinosa has seven (7) bunt hits so far in 2014. That’s more bunt hits than 28 MLB teams, in a tie for first place with the Marlins and Danny’s D.C. teammates. In fact, Espinosa’s bunts account for 35% of his total hits (7/20), and he’s only failed once.

This is so unprecedented that a better word would be “outrageous”. In 2013, Leonys Martin led the MLB in bunt hits with just 12. And Martin only succeeded 40% of the time that he tried getting on base with the bunt. I had to go back to 2011 to find a guy who pulled off the base-on-bunts 20+ times in a season: Juan Pierre attempted 62 and succeeded with 23.

Only one qualified hitter in recent (batted-ball data) history has done anything even slightly similar to what Espinosa is doing so far. Fully 20% of Willy Taveras‘ career hits were bunts; he succeeded nearly half (46%) of the time, racking up a total of 130 bunt hits, including 38 in the year 2007, which is the single-season record, even though he only played in 97 games (!!). Only Juan Pierre has more bunt hits in the batted-ball-data era, but he’s much less successful on a percentage basis.

There are many reasons to think Espinosa won’t follow in their footsteps. For one thing, he’s a very different hitter: not a powerless center fielder who relies solely on speed, but a homer-happy middle infielder with a dangerous strikeout tendency.

In fact, therein might lie an explanation. Last year, Danny Espinosa hit rock-bottom, plagued both by injuries and the stupid belief that he could play through his injuries. His collapse was uglier than Ron Burgundy’s, and he put up a .280 OBP in the minors. Now he’s on the comeback trail. The power is back. The strikeouts are back. The batted-ball profile in general is back to pre-2013 numbers.

With one big exception: the bunts.

I believe this is deliberate. Espinosa is trying to get on base, he’s trying to cure a predilection for infield pop-ups, he’s trying to re-establish himself against major-league pitching, and he’s trying to re-establish himself in a lineup where he’s currently filling in for an injury. He likes unorthodox approaches to reaching base, leading the NL in hit-by-pitches in 2011.

Given Jeff Sullivan’s recent series of posts about bunts, bunting is a tougher skill than we’d think. Danny Espinosa was always good at bunts. (Maybe we can convince Jeff to make GIFs of all seven bunt hits so far.) In 2011 and 2012 his bunt hit attempts succeeded about 43% of the time, nearly as good as Willy Taveras. He chipped in a few sacrifices, though not too many. He might commit to this stratagem until teams start expecting the bunt every time he steps in.

If Danny Espinosa wants to set records, the records are there for him to take. If he succeeds on even half his attempts, that’s a season record. If he succeeds 32 more times, that’s a season record. You’d be crazy to believe he will break those records. But you’d have been crazy to believe, a month ago, that he would have even had a chance.

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Brian Reinhart writes about food for the Dallas Observer, classical music for MusicWeb, and the silly side of baseball for Banknotes Industries. You may also know him from FanGraphs as the "Well-Beered Englishman." Follow him on Twitter @bgreinhart.

4 Responses to “All Hail the New Bunt King?”

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  1. tz says:

    The bunts basically account for the difference between his .391 BABIP this year and his .299 career BABIP.

    Now if he could only improve his bunting enough to fearlessly bunt with two strikes on him….

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    • Peter Jensen says:

      How much more improvement would he need? He only has an OBP of .217 when he doesn’t bunt with 2 strikes.

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  2. Welch says:

    Bunts are good. Ty Cobb said so, and explained the several situations in which he would bunt. When somebody bunts — without holding a sign for 30 seconds saying “I’m about to bunt” — infielders scramble. The 3B, pitcher, and 1B have to decide quickly how to make the play, and they often melt. Who fields the bunt? Bare-handed or glove? Did the 1B charge home? If so, does the pitcher cover 1B? Is the pitcher lost in making his pitch or is he, Harvey Haddix style, ready to be a fielder as soon as he releases?

    All sorts of unpredictable things happen. Most of all, the fielders often must make a perfect play.

    That’s why Phil Rizzuto tried to teach Yankee players to bunt. Bunting, the hit&run, and base-stealing used to be the big advantage the NL had over the station-to-station AL.

    Good for Espinosa.

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  3. Paul says:

    Are/were teams employing the shift against him? That might explain the increased usage of bunting.

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