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April 11, 2014

BP Unfiltered

This Week in Bunting to Beat the Shift, 4/11

by Ben Lindbergh

One of my obsessions this season is the defensive shift—specifically, what batters are going to do about it. I covered this subject at length last month, but here’s how I boiled it down in last week’s Lineup Card:

Teams are shifting more often; they're shifting not only at higher rates against the usual slow-footed, southpaw sluggers who are classic shift candidates, but also against more marginal hitters whom they wouldn't have bothered to defend before, down to and including Ryan Flaherty; the math suggests that it makes sense for an average hitter to attempt a bunt with third base open as long as he has a >=40 percent chance to get it down; and the more common the shift is, the more worthwhile it becomes for a hitter who hasn't had to do it before to invest the time necessary to become a competent bunter (as extreme pull hitter Brandon Moss did this spring).

More and more teams are getting on the defensive positioning bandwagon. At some point, the batters will strike back, using one of the only anti-shift tactics available. I'll be tracking this throughout the season for any sign that hitters have had enough.

So here I am, keeping a promise that you probably wouldn’t have held me to. Every Friday—well, every Friday on which there’s a new bunt to report, at least—I’ll be doing a post on bunts against the shift from the preceding week, much like I did with catcher framing and super-long plate appearances last season. This week, we’ll cover the 2014 season so far.

Inside Edge tracks defensive shifts and bunts with the shift in effect, so they’ll be supplying the data for this series. According to IE, there were 40 bunts against the shift in 2012, and 50 in 2013. Of those 90 bunts, 56 led to hits, so you can see why the bunt is so smart: At that success rate, it makes sense for any hitter who can get a bunt down to do so with the bases empty, and the worse the hitter and the emptier the left side of the infield, the better a play it becomes. IE reports that overshifts on at-bat-ending plays are up from 4.5 per game in 2013 to 6.8 per game thus far this season, an increase of 51 percent, so bunting opportunities are presenting themselves more often than ever.

This week, we have three bunts to talk about, all of them by hitters who didn’t employ this tactic in the past two seasons.

Date: 4/2
Batter: Brandon Moss, Athletics
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Zach McAllister, Indians
Outs: 1
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

Moss is the majors’ most extreme pull hitter on groundballs, and thus one of the top targets for the shift. Prior to this season, he’d never attempted to bunt for a base hit, but after becoming frustrated by how many hits he was losing, he decided to do something different, putting himself through bunting boot camp this spring with the assistance of A’s bench coach Chip Hale. Although he broke out the bunt in exhibition games, there was no way to know whether he’d stick with it once the season started; in the past, some hitters (Mark Teixeira, for instance) have declared their intention to bunt without following through. But it took Moss only three games to make good on his threat:

Moss’ success tells us that it’s possible for a power hitter with no bunting experience to pick up the skill in one spring. Maybe he’s a harder worker or has more natural bunting ability than the typical slugger, but whatever his secret, it certainly looks like he’s been at this a lot longer:

Later in the same game, Moss came up with the shortstop on the right side of second and the second baseman in right field, but with a runner on third, he didn’t have a clear lane on the left side. Despite hitting right into the shift, he managed to beat it that time, too, because the pitcher covering first bobbled the ball. We’ll keep watching to see how often Moss attempts to bunt for base hits, and how often he has the opportunity to do so now that opposing teams know that they risk being burned when they leave the left side open against him.

Date: 4/6
Batter: Raul Ibanez, Angels
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Scott Feldman, Astros
Outs: 2
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Out

Feldman finished in better fielding position than McCallister, and Ibanez’s bunt didn’t have the same speed off the bat. At age 41, Ibanez doesn’t have the wheels to beat out a bunt that doesn’t get by the pitcher (not that he ever did), so this one didn’t work out. Still, kudos to an old DH for trying a new trick. It's possible that he got the idea from Carlos Pena, who led the league with nine bunt attempts against the shift from 2012–2013 and was in Angels camp this spring.

Date: 4/8
Batter: Garrett Jones, Marlins
Bunts against the shift by this batter in 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez, Nationals
Outs: 0
Count: 1-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

This one was a beauty: Jones is a liability against left-handed pitchers, so the expected outcome of this plate appearance (particularly with the shift on) would have been much worse had he been hitting away.

When you see an alignment like this...

...you have to wonder why more hitters don't do the same thing.

Season Totals
Bunts against the shift in 2014:
3, 2 successful
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2013: 1
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2012: 0

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

6 comments have been left for this article.

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What Scouts Are Saying... (04/10)
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BP Unfiltered: Mark Ap... (04/08)
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BP Unfiltered: This We... (04/11)
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