Francisco Lindor: Stop Bunting

It’s hard to find a flaw within Francisco Lindor’s 2015 rookie season. The numbers say he was a top-five defensive shortstop in baseball; the eye test agrees. He had one of the best offensive debuts by a shortstop on record, combining plus on-base skills with surprising power. He even patched up his weak link from the minor leagues — baserunning efficiency — by stealing 12 bases in 14 attempts at the major league level. Adjusting for playing time, Lindor was one of the 10 most valuable players in baseball last season, using our WAR figure here on the site.

Lindor was excellent across the board, but he wasn’t the best at anything. He wasn’t the very best defender, but he was close. He wasn’t the very best hitting rookie shortstop of all time, but he was close. He wasn’t the very best baserunner, or the number one most valuable player on a per-plate appearance basis, but he was close. There was one leaderboard though, where you can find Lindor at the top, and, coincidentally, it’s also where you can find Lindor’s only real blemish.

Francisco Lindor, in the midst of one of the greatest offensive seasons by a rookie shortstop in history, led all of baseball in sacrifice bunts, with 13, despite playing in fewer than 100 games.

By this point, I don’t think anyone needs too big a primer on sacrifice bunting. It’s certainly got its place as a valuable tool — late-inning, need one run, man on first, no outs, weak and/or slow hitter at the plate, move him over. But there’s a reason sacrifice bunts are on a 90-year decline — because they’re very rarely a wise play, and the more information teams have gained over time, the more that’s become obvious.

Let Indians manager Terry Francona explain:

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 9.24.17 AM

Outs are valuable, they’re finite, and sacrifice bunts give them away with limited reward. Got it. Everyone understands this. Lindor’s manager understands this. So then, what was going on?

It’s important to know here that most, if not all, of Lindor’s bunts were called by Lindor himself. They weren’t called by Francona; they also weren’t stopped by Francona. Lindor chose to bunt himself, and Francona noted the other day that “a lot of times it’s his first at-bat, when he’s not real sure how good he feels or if he can pull the ball or if he knows the pitcher.”

That’s true. And that’s worse. As Francona noted above, “when you bunt, you’re telling the whole world that you only want to score one run … early in the game you generally want to score more.” Yet, of Lindor’s 17 sacrifice bunt attempts last season, a whopping 15 of them came in the first three innings, with 10 coming in the first. You’ve got to go back a decade, to Clint Barmes in 2006, to find a player with more sacrifice bunts in the first three innings. Clint Barmes was the worst hitter in baseball that year.

In fact, let’s put this into a little more context. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I scanned the entire expansion era (1961-present), looking for sacrifice bunts by above-average hitters (OPS+ north of 100) who were also starters (greater than 300 plate appearances and 3.1 plate appearances per game).

Here’s your most extreme sacrifice bunters by above-average hitters over the last 55 years:

Highest Sac Bunt% by Above-Average Hitters, 1961-Present
Rk Player Year PA SH SH% OPS+
1 Rob Wilfong 1979 485 25 5.2% 114
2 Jay Bell 1991 697 30 4.3% 113
3 Jerry Browne 1992 390 16 4.1% 112
4 Jim Sundberg 1977 533 20 3.8% 105
5 Billy Ripken 1990 456 17 3.7% 107
6 Brett Butler 1992 676 24 3.6% 130
7 John Castino 1980 599 21 3.5% 103
8 Nyjer Morgan 2011 429 15 3.5% 111
9 Luis Castillo 2005 524 18 3.4% 108
10 Roy Smalley 1978 702 23 3.3% 122
11 Dave Gallagher 1991 306 10 3.3% 102
12 Quinton McCracken 2002 400 13 3.3% 107
13 Manny Mota 1969 433 14 3.2% 119
14 Wally Backman 1986 440 14 3.2% 113
15 Jerry Remy 1981 410 13 3.2% 100
16 Fred Manrique 1989 412 13 3.2% 104
17 Gene Alley 1966 634 20 3.2% 108
18 Dwayne Murphy 1980 702 22 3.1% 119
19 Terry Whitfield 1978 543 17 3.1% 109
20 Steve Finley 1994 417 13 3.1% 102
21 Craig Grebeck 1992 333 10 3.0% 105
22 Manny Mota 1971 300 9 3.0% 121
23 John Valentin 1993 539 16 3.0% 107
24 Francisco Lindor 2015 438 13 3.0% 122
25 Wes Parker 1965 644 19 3.0% 100

Lindor isn’t the most extreme, but sac bunt rates have also been cut in half over the last 55 years, so we’d never expect him to be near the top. That Lindor is where he is at all is relatively shocking, given the era in which he plays. And by sorting this leaderboard a couple different ways, Lindor sticks out even more.

First, sort by year. You’ll note that only four of the 25 player-seasons in this table occurred in the last 20 years; only two in the last 10, Lindor of course being one of them. Now, sort by OPS+. Lindor is the second-best hitter in this table. Put another way: Brett Butler in 1992 is the only player in the expansion era to a) be a better hitter than Francisco Lindor while also b) bunting more than Francisco Lindor. Basically, Lindor’s mix of offensive competence with sacrifice bunting is essentially unparalleled over the last six decades of major league baseball.

So, he must have just been really good at them, right? Even that wouldn’t justify Lindor’s rate of sacrifice bunts, but it would at least help explain it. The answer is: well, no, he wasn’t exactly good at them, and, no, it didn’t exactly help them score runs or win games. We can start by simply saying that Lindor attempted 17 sacrifice bunts, 14 of which were successful, and that an 82% success rate is barely above the break-even rate for situations in which you only need one run. As we know, the majority of Lindor’s sacrifices came early when the Indians should’ve been playing for more than one run, which certainly puts his success rate well below the break-even rate.

So Lindor’s success rate on the sacrifices themselves was poor, but what happened after the attempts? Were they at least leading to positive outcomes? Adding up the run expectancy from Lindor’s 17 attempts, the Indians were expected to score a total of 18 runs in these situations, before the bunt. In fact, run expectancy is selling the Indians short, here, because those figures are based on league-average hitters, while Lindor (and Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana batting behind Lindor) are well-above average hitters. So, before the bunt, the Indians were expected to score at least 18 runs anyway, and after all the bunt attempts, they actually scored 14 runs. For what it’s worth, in the games in which Lindor attempted a bunt, the Indians, who finished the season above .500, went 7-10.

Here’s what we’ve got on Lindor, the bunter:

  • Best hitter in the last 22 years to bunt as often as he did
  • Most early-game bunts by any player in a decade
  • Own manager on record as saying early-game bunts are bad
  • Wasn’t particularly good at getting them down
  • Indians scored less runs than expected after he bunted
  • Indians lost more games than expected after he bunted

It’s a tough sell.

Lindor believes he’s doing the right thing, that he’s helping the team by giving himself up. The problem is, he’s not. He isn’t helping the team in a theoretical, run expectancy sense, and he didn’t even help the team in a literal, scoring runs and winning games sense. Francona says he “loves the fact that he wants to move runners” and so he’s been “reluctant to even approach him on it.” But it’s clear that Lindor needs to realize he can move runners over in a far more efficient manner without giving himself up.

It’s going to be tough for Lindor to build upon his remarkably impressive rookie season. It’ll be tough for the defensive metrics to love him more than they do. It’ll be tough for him to top his batting or baserunning numbers, because he’s set the bar so high. But there’s one part of Lindor’s game that can be guaranteed to improve with one simple fix: just stop bunting.

We hoped you liked reading Francisco Lindor: Stop Bunting by August Fagerstrom!

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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Phillies113
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This is some blunt bunt talk. Good read