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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bunting for Sluggers and Sprinters

As much fun as it is to see Jay Bruce hit monster
home runs, sometimes he is just as well-served
when he tries for the bunt single.
Photo credit: Trev Stair
The bunt has a potential to be an important weapon for the Reds this season.  Billy Hamilton, the Fastest Man in Uniform, will try to use the bunt to get the ball on the ground so that he can use his legs to steal first base--especially when batting from the left side.  It can be a big part of his game, much as it was for Willy Taveras.  Obviously, the hope is that he can be a better player than Willy Taveras, but there was a time when he was in the running for both the retrosheet bunt hit record as well as the single-season bunt success record.

Taveras was an especially skilled bunter, but Jeff Sullivan did a piece at FanGraphs this week that demonstrated how hard bunting can be.  It is clearly something for which players can have a lot of success, but he found that the average rate at which bunt attempts are even bunted fair is only about 50% of the time.  And that's for "frequent" bunters; other players are down near 46% of the time.  And that's just bunting the ball fair, not successfully getting on base.  If the bunt is going to be useful for Hamilton, it's clearly a skill he'll have to develop (and he hopefully already has).

But with the increased prevalence of the infield shift, other Reds hitters may see reason to use the bunt.  Jeff Sullivan wrote a follow-up looking at how pull hitters, and especially left-handed pull hitters, can use the bunt to beat the shift.  The idea is so tantalizing: if the infield defense is cheating on you, giving up the entire left side to get four infielders on the right side, then you can get an "automatic hit" just by dropping a bunt toward third base.

Of all the Reds hitters, Jay Bruce would seem to be the best candidate for this approach.  And he clearly does so: Sullivan reported that Bruce has made 30 bunt attempts during Sullivan's 2008-2013 window.  Of his 30 attempts, only 9 went fair, which means the other 21 attempts went as strikes (fouls or whiffs).  But on those 9 fair bunts, 5 were successful: that's an 0.556 clip!  The interesting thing, however, is that Sullivan found that even after successful attempts, defenses were sometimes slow to adjust out of the shift...which means, if you can execute, you can continue to get on base with it at a high clip.

(Also, as an aside, the second animated gif in Sullivan's piece of Hank Conger's "successful" bunt hit is required viewing)

Just this morning, David Laurila posted a great quote from Brandon Moss on the advantages of using the bunt against the shift.
“If you’re able to get one down, it works two ways,” explained Moss. “Either it shifts the defense back over and opens up holes on the pull side, where I hit the ball, or they keep doing it and it’s a free hit. I just have to make sure I get it by the pitcher.”
It's classic game theory, and it works for both pull hitters and speedsters: if the defense knows you won't bunt, they don't have to defend against it, which means they can play back and even shift if necessary.  If they know they have to defend against the bunt, however, they will have to think twice about the shift.  And for a guy like Hamilton, they may have to cheat in on the grass, which gives his ground balls an even better chance of sneaking by infielders when he does swing.