By In Stuff

A Bunt To Believe In

So, yeah, I don’t like the sacrifice bunt. I don’t like the way it’s scored. I don’t like the way managers use it. I don’t like percentages. I don’t like people’s hyper-eagerness to just give away an out, like it’s nothing, like it is actually worth just one base. I suspect I’ll be talking about all this at some length with Brian Kenny at 9:35 a.m. on his radio show.

But there is a kind of bunt I like, a kind of bunt I’d like to see players use more: The bunt against the shift.

Wait, let’s start with the NBA. From 1965 to 1980, as you probably know, Rick Barry shot underhand free throws. He made a rather extraordinary 89.3% in his career — but shot an even more incredible 92% his last six years. He got better as he got older. He was convinced — and he remains convinced — that anyone who takes the time to learn the underhand free throw and develops it can shoot 80% free throws, minimum. There is some science that backs him up.

Do you know much how much good 80% free throw shooting can do for some players? Last year, Dwight Howard averaged 17.1 points per game despite making just 49.2% of his free throws. He would have scored 222 more points total and averaged 20 points per game had he made 80% of his free throws. DeAndre Jordan made just 39% of his free throws — even at 70% he scores maybe 100 more points this past season and is an infinitely more valuable player at crunch time. Seventeen NBA players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game shot worse than 60%. I’m not saying this as some sort of old fogey “oh the kids today with their free throws” … I’m just saying: Why wouldn’t they TRY to shoot underhand?

The answer seems to be: It looks silly. It’s embarrassing. Great athletes simply find it intolerably demeaning to shoot a free throw underhand, like they were Betty White. For a little while, Wilt Chamberlain — a dreadful free throw shooter — tried the underhand method. It’s hard to find the numbers, but anecdotally there is some suggestion he improved a little bit from the line. Thing is, his heart wasn’t in it. Wilt Chamberlain shot 51% in his long career and still averaged 30.1 points per game. If he had shot 80%, he would have scored 3,400 more points and averages 33.4 points per game. Anyway, he did not stick with it. But he stopped shooting underhand because, as he wrote in his autobiography, “I slept with 20,000 women.” No, wait, he also wrote that shooting underhand free throws made him feel like a sissy, and the other players mocked him. Even an iconoclast like Wilt Chamberlain could not stand up to the intense pressure of not shooting underhand.

Rick Barry finds all this maddening. What’s a little taunting when you can SCORE MORE POINTS? In his mind, you are hurting your team and hurting yourself by not doing everything in your power to excel. It drives him crazy that players would rather miss free throws and look conventional than make free throws and look out of place.

So it brings us back to the bunt against the shift. As we know, it’s become more and more popular to play three infielders on the right side against power lefties … and put the third baseman close to shortstop. it’s proven to be quite effective against many players. But there is a way to beat it consistently. You could bunt the ball down the third base line. This works, even for players we have come to know as very slow. Three examples:

David Ortiz is 6-for-11 on bunts.

Jim Thome was 2-for-4 on bunts.

Jason Giambi was 2-for-3 on bunts.

We don’t have a lot of data for this because, of course, hitters rarely bunt against the shift. Ryan Howard never has. Josh Hamilton tried it once, unsuccessfully, and took much abuse over it. Ted Williams once bunted against the shift and it was national news, the Splinter giving in. He did not give in again. “Like Ruth before him,” John Updike would famously write of Williams pulling balls relentlessly into the teeth of the defensive shift, “he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles — a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.”

No, it’s not selfish … but the more interesting question: Is it productive baseball? How often would a player need to be successful on bunts against the shift for it to be clearly the better strategy. I asked our pal Tom Tango if he had some numbers for the occasion and, not surprisingly, he did. He looked specifically at situations with the bases empty.

“If you are successful on a bunt with bases empty,” he wrote, “you add +.26 runs. If you are out, it’s -.16 runs. If you are successful 60% of the time, then you have added: .26 x .60 – .16 x .40 = +.092 … And that’s pretty much the limit to what an exceptional hitter can add (with the bases empty). Therefore, ANYONE who can bunt at least 60% of the time into an open field (with bases empty) should do it every single time.”

This makes sense to me. But even if you don’t do it every time, why wouldn’t you bunt against the shift at least now and then. I mean LOOK AT THIS? I’m not saying it’s as easy as Robbie Cano makes it look there, but it’s an opportunity to get on base a very high percentage of the time. And as Bill James points out, it also could have the auxiliary benefit of stopping the other team from using the shift. Why wouldn’t hitters take greater advantage of that?

I think the reason few players bunt is two-fold. One, obviously, revolves around the Rick Barry underhand free throw. Bunting against the shift is embarrassing, it’s demeaning, it’s somehow admitting defeat. Of course, that’s the cunning power of the defensive shift. The shift in many ways is like the final Tom Cruise maneuver on Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” — it is a play on the subject’s ego and hubris and refusal to look weak. Nicholson, who clearly had no misgivings about lying through his teeth, only had to say, “No, I didn’t order the code red,” and and Tom Cruise is off somewhere getting disbarred. But he didn’t. A batter has only to bunt a few balls down that third base line to completely destroy the defensive shift. But he doesn’t.

Two, baseball remains inextricably tied to what people want to believe. In so many ways, I think that’s why the sacrifice bunt is still such a viable baseball play — it’s because, it SHOULD be a good play. I mean, look, this guy’s giving himself up for the good of the team. This guy’s moving into scoring position. That should increase our chances of scoring! The inconvenient fact that it doesn’t increase chances of scoring — not mathematically, not historically, not at all — simply cannot overwhelm the optics.

And so speedy guys still keep getting put at the top of batting orders, and little guys who can’t necessarily hit but can “handle the bat” still hit second and the team’s best hitter are hitting third, and the bopper keeps hitting cleanup even though there are many, many reasons to believe (and many studies that prove) that this is a poor way to construct a lineup. Why? It SEEMS right. It feels right. It looks right. I mean the fast guy gets on, he steals second, the stick man hits behind the runner and moves him to third, the team’s best hitter hits a sacrifice fly … great inning, right?

People have to understand, logically, that pitchers don’t win games. But the pitcher win seems right. People have to know that walks are valuable. But, wait, don’t you see that Joey Votto only has 72 RBIs? People have to know that sluggers will help their team more by bunting and getting on base at a very high rate than by trying to bang ball into a tiny gap in a defensive shift. But, wait, then they won’t hit home runs. Baseball, very often, focuses on what SHOULD be true rather than what actually IS true.





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35 Responses to A Bunt To Believe In

  1. Marty Winn says:

    Love this column, hate the pride that hurts your team.

  2. Carl says:

    Thank you for this. I’m am a Nationals fan, and I’ve been saying all year, to hoots of derision from my fellow fans on Twitter, that Adam LaRoche (and his .237 BA) should bunt into the shift more often. If he did it every time he led off an inning (esp. with a lefty on the mound) I can’t help but think it would have significantly increased his value this year.

  3. Unknown says:

    Still lamenting the Yankees’ failure to bunt on Schilling and his bloody sock in 2004. Thanks for a great article.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Teams used to try to bunt on Jim Abbott, with his deformed arm, so I’m surprised that the Yankees wouldn’t have tried to bunt some on Schilling to make him move & potentially get him to hurt himself more. Abbott, btw, had been relentlessly bunted on for a long time, so he was quite good at dumping the glove, barehanding it and throwing the runner out. So, if you want to stop a strategy, like bunting, or like a shift, it just requires some work. Once you prove you can do something, the other team has to adjust.

  4. Rob Smith says:

    I commented on this in a previous Poz article. Steve Garvey unashamedly bunted every time he thought the 3rd basemen was too far back. I believe the stat, and this is from memory, was that he got 15-20 bunt hits every year…. and the auxillary (or perhaps the primary) benefit of forcing the 3rd baseman inside the bag, which gave him an ample hole to hit at. It was considered a positive thing from a fan perspective. Very smart, calculated and effective. And, in his case, the bunt had to be pretty good. The 3rd baseman was in his normal position, and presumably at least aware of the possibility of a bunt.
    Earlier this year, Brian McCann finally bunted against the shift. The shift had the 3rd baseman pretty far towards second base. The bunt was not great, it was bunted hard pretty much towards the normal shortstop position. There was no play, however. Precision was not necessary. Just get it past the pitcher and it’s a hit. I never saw him try it again. 4-5 of those and the scouting report changes entirely. At minimum, the 3rd baseman has to return to a semblance of his position. Then the balls McCann hits up the middle to the left of second base are hits. The shift starts to fall apart…. or at least take a few body blows. It’s crazy that players don’t take advantage of the weakness of the shift. If not, at least, to force the opposing teams to play you more conventionally.

    • Will More says:

      I saw an old game on ESPN Classic years ago where Mantle bunted against a shift. He made it, of course. Man, I miss watching old games on Classic.

    • invitro says:

      I just had to check on Garvey. Very nice call, even if he didn’t get quite that many per year. Apparently he has the all-time highest bunt success rate (among those with 50+ attempts) with 62/75 for a crazy 83%. Also the #3 success rate with bases empty, at 46/56 for 82%.

      And Mickey had 80/148 bunt hits with the bases empty, for 54%. The 80 is 10th all-time, making me really want to see a long all-time total bunt hits list.

      I got this from these stats- and strategy-ridden pages that seem a great companion to Joe’s post:

    • invitro says:

      And thanks a bunch for mentioning these two guys… I would’ve guessed Carew, Rose, speedsters like Coleman and Nixon… but Garvey? Mantle??!! Garvey was very popular when I was a kid and I saw him play many many times (I hated him then), but I just don’t recall anything about his bunting. Surprises in baseball stats are the best.

    • Rob Smith says:

      Interesting fact on Garvey was that he was a safety at Michigan State, so he had pretty good speed. He came up as a 3rd baseman, but was a very inaccurate thrower. So they had to find a position for him and eventually put him at first despite his only being about 5′ 10″. The Dodgers didn’t have a first baseman and Garvey definitely had limitations in the field especially with his throwing. But he was good at digging balls in the dirt, and the infielders adjusted to his height by throwing low, knowing Garvey would dig low throws. High throws went into the dugout.

    • purebull says:

      i seem to remember bill james writing about garvey in one of his abstracts…that garvey was a clockwork player. he actually planned out how many hits he needed to hit to right field each year, how many to center, how many bunts to drop…etc…

    • I think Mantle often bunted to get out of slumps. I don’t know if it was psychological-getting a hit allowed him to relax a bit-or mechanical in that it forced him to keep his head down and just meet the ball, but I remember him saying that was often why he did it.

      He was very adept at the drag bunt, sometimes popping it over the pitcher’s head. With his speed, he usually made it to first base.

  5. Rob Smith says:

    BTW: though bunts are generally poor strategy, having Pitchers bunt makes sense, since they are likely to make an out or a double play anyway. I think the same hold true with light hitting players. It makes absolute sense to have Mario Mendoza bunt, presuming the next hitter is better. I think sometimes the idea of bunting is a big average. As hitters are weaker, and I admit I don’t have the numbers, it has to make more and more sense to move the runner along with an out. The better stat would be to find out at what OBP or BA does it make sense, percentage wise, to bunt with a runner on first. Right now, it’s all averaged out & “generally” is not a good strategy. If we draw the line where it starts to make sense, it would be a much more effective way of presenting it.

  6. dr says:

    I’ve wondered about this too, and I think it comes down to our belief in “roles.” All the players you mention are power hitters, and so their role is to hit for power. Sure, sometimes they take a mighty hack and wind up on first base, but that’s because they just missed it, and next time they’ll knock it out of the park! Or so we believe. And with this mentality, bunting into the shift allows the defense to turn one of our strongest weapons, a guy who’s making one of the highest salaries on the team, into a punch and judy singles hitter. So yes, I think it is pride that keeps these hitters hacking away into the shift, but it’s not a fear of looking silly so much as it’s the refusal to allow the other team to change your role, to force you to become a different player, a lesser player (because punch and judy singles hitters may be praised by sportswriters as gritty, but chicks dig the long ball).

  7. “But there is a kind of bunt I like, a kind of bunt I’d like to see players use more: The bunt against the shift.
    Wait, let’s start with the NBA. “

    Joe, this is why I love reading you.

  8. Will More says:

    Pos sounds a little like Cobb here. I agree, just struck me as funny.

  9. Mark Daniel says:

    Bunt??? Have you ever spent time in an infantry unit, Joe? Ever served in a forward area?

  10. Devon Young says:

    One question tho… if sacrifice bunting is for the good of the team, then why don’t players & coaches see bunting against the shift as sacrificing ego “for the good of the team”? It SEEMS right, and it IS right. Oh, and it IS good for your own stats too… higher BA & OBP. As Cano demonstrates, a properly executed bunt against the shift can also do your SLG some good. As if that’s not enough, the batter gets to make the opposing team looks so foolish that they shouldn’t even be on the same field. Oh, and like you said — it sets up for no-more-shift. We all like & understand setup pitches, but they don’t get the same concept in a different situation? To me, bunting against the shift, is an extremely obvious win-win situation for the batter. I could never figure out why it wasn’t done more often, after Ortiz did it last year. I’ve never played for millions of $$$’s though, so I guess I just don’t understand how the millionaire ego works.

    • dr says:

      These are all power hitters we are talking about–maybe they don’t bunt because they can’t. When was the last time Ryan Howard or Brian McCann practiced bunting?

    • Rob Smith says:

      If I can teach 11 year olds to bunt in practices over a couple of weeks, shouldn’t a pro be able to do it? Of course they should, but they don’t work at it. It’s the same reason a lot of people make the same mistakes over and over again…. They don’t like to change….so they don’t. In my example of Garvey, bunting for hits was always part of his game. McCann and Howard don’t bunt and will probably never bunt often. They could, but they just don’t.

  11. mike runs says:

    As a few others have pointed out, one of the side effects of the bunt to third is that it might change the defensive strategy.

    In that sense, it might be even more effective than the underhanded free throw, which is a great example of trying something different but which has no effect whatsoever on the defence and requires no response from the defence.

  12. Jason Dennis says:

    while I agree with the overall analysis, most hitters that get shifted against would have nowhere near 60% efficiency on bunts, it would be more like 20%

    • Rob Smith says:

      So, you’re saying that a professional baseball player …. who gets paid to do nothing but baseball… cannot take 20 minutes a day to learn to push a hard bunt somewhere left of the pitcher & be successful 60% of the time? It’s not exactly a precision bunt we’re talking about here. The opposition is giving them a hit if they bunt…. guessing, mostly correctly, that they won’t even try. I agree that in many case that they WON’T work at it & won’t do it in a game… but they could and should do it.

  13. chris. says:

    For years, people would write in to the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s beat writer Paul Hoynes and ask, “Why doesn’t Jim Thome bunt against the shift?” And Paul Hoynes would dutifully answer, “That is exactly what the opposition would like him to do.” I always wondered, if that were the case, why the opposition didn’t just walk Jim Thome every time he came to the plate.

    Of course, plenty of people did just that against Barry Bonds. But Barry Bonds is of course a freakish outlier in every way you might want to imagine, whereas Jim Thome is merely at the Hall of Fame end of normal, or possibly at the normal end of the Hall of Fame.

    • Dinky says:

      Steroid Barry was the greatest hitter of all time. For his last four MVP seasons, he was older, slower, muscle bound, and running hard hurt a little. He also had an OPS well above 1.2 each season, the best of them over 1.4. Thus, he would need a success rate over 60% in order for bunt singles to be better than slugging away. Given how few strikes he saw, it’s not clear bunting made sense for him except if it 1) caused opponents to stop shifting and 2) the shift was effective. It would also mean mentally yielding to the opponents by changing his own approach. Given how much of hitting is confidence, it takes a supremely confident batter (Steve Garvey?) to change his approach a few times a year knowing in the long run it will lead to more hits. Aside from Barry, Ted, or Babe, I suspect everybody should bunt 10-20 times a year against a shift.

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  15. Dinky says:

    I always built my Strat-O-Matic lineups based upon OBP. If I had two guys with similar OBP against that handedness of pitcher (say, 5%) I would put the good base stealers high in the lineup; two guys with similar OBP but one had more power, the sluggers would bat 3rd-4th-5th. It was rare that the four best OBP chances weren’t 1-2-3-4 in some order based on power and speed, five best 1-2-3-4-5, six best 1-2-3-4-5-6; speed, power, and handedness to keep a decent lineup against relievers all were factors. My teams always outperformed their run expectations once I started using these methods.

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