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May 2, 2014

Overthinking It

This Week in Bunting to Beat the Shift, 5/2

by Ben Lindbergh


Last month I started a season-long series (continued here and here) devoted to tracking bunts for base hits with the infield shift in effect; this is the third installment. To bring you up to speed on the series’ premise and methodology will take but two brief excerpts. Excerpt one:

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.

And excerpt two:

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.

And now you’re caught up. Today, we’ll cover the games of April 24-30, with the list of bunts against the shift again supplied by Inside Edge. We have a handful of new bunts to talk about, plus a chat with one of our brave bunters, two adventures in extreme shifting, and—new this week from BP intern Chris Mosch—a look at whether teams have been adjusting their defensive alignments against batters who’ve burned them before with bunts against the shift.

Before we get into the new material, we have to circle back to pick up one bunt that slipped through our initial sweep. It was a momentous one. (Mouse over the video to play it; mouse away to pause.)

Date: 4/18
Batter: Jed Lowrie, Athletics
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 1
Pitcher: Paul Clemens, Astros
Inning: 1
Outs: 2
Count: 0-0
Runners: 1
Outcome: Out

Yes, this bunt was the infamous unwritten rulebreaker that led to multiple A’s–Astros kerfluffles. Lowrie dropped one down with two outs in the first and a 7-0 lead after the A’s had knocked out starter Jarred Cosart with only out batter retired to his name, which angered the Astros for running-up-the-score-related reasons. As Lowrie pointed out, quite logically, the Astros clearly weren’t conceding the game, since they were shifting on him in order to prevent him from reaching base. Therefore, he responded in kind, and the Astros got out of the inning (which will be reflected in the full-season stats at the end of this post).

On to the brand-new bunts from the past week:

Date: 4/25
Batter: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Gerrit Cole, Pirates
Inning: 1
Outs: 0
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

Carpenter took advantage of a pulled-over Pedro Alvarez leading off the game, doing a nice job of deadening the ball without making it playable by either Cole or catcher Russell Martin.

Date: 4/26
Batter: Ian Stewart
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Shawn Kelley
Inning: 8
Outs: 1
Count: 0-0
Runners: 1
Outcome: Single

Stewart was included in last week’s installment for a bunt against Detroit, and he followed that up with this textbook bunt against the shift in New York that barely stayed fair. I sought him out before the following game to find out why he’d embraced the bunt, so I’ll paste the (fairly brief) chat transcript here and continue with more bunts below.

Ben Lindbergh: Both you and Raul [Ibanez] have done it a couple times. Is that something that you discussed or is that something you've come to independently?

Ian Stewart: To me, it's almost a no-brainer. I was almost a little hesitant last night, or yesterday, because I still don't always know if it's the right thing to do. Being a power hitter, a guy that can drive the ball, hit it in the gaps, hit it over the fence, eighth inning. Sometimes I'm basically in scoring position at the plate because I can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Maybe it doesn't happen a lot, but, you know. So yesterday it was there, so I'm like, 'I’ve got to take it.' I get Brennan in scoring position, then we get two chances to get a guy in. So sometimes I wonder if it's always the best time to do it, but if they're playing back and giving you a hit I guess you’ve got to take it and get on base and let the next few guys try to get that run in.

BL: Is it something you would talk about with a coach or manager and say 'Hey, is this cool with you?' or is it something you do on your own?

IS: I've done it on my own and never have they said anything about it, so I take that as, you're doing your job and trying to get on base. That's one of the names of the game as a hitter, you get on base anyway you can. If they're going to leave that side open, I'm very comfortable bunting. I don't necessarily work on it a lot, but I feel like I work enough on it that I'm very comfortable doing it.

BL: Do you think that's something that stops a lot of people from doing it? That they don't have a lot of experience trying it?

IS: Yeah, I think guys work on it. If you don't walk up to the plate comfortable doing it, I think that can make guys shy away from doing it. Even Raul, he's kind of asking me a little bit about my mindset: what I'm trying to do or what I'm thinking when I get up there. I've seen him try to do it a couple of times. But if it's not really part of your game or something that you've done throughout your career or that you're comfortable with, it could be difficult to do. In that situation, all you've got to do really is get the bunt by the pitcher and there's nobody over there. But if you're a little hesitant at doing it or you're not used to it... It's not easy just for anybody to do.

BL: So if you do it once in a game, do you notice them playing you any differently the next time up?

IS: Not really. I think I got a hit out of it in Detroit and they still played me the same way. I think it was my first at-bat of the game: bunt for a hit. My next two or three times up, they had the same shift. I tried once more, fouled it off, and then I didn't do it again but they didn't change at all. I guess they were more than happy to give that to me.

BL: Carlos Pena used to do it a lot. He was in camp this spring. Did you talk to him at all about it?

IS: No, I never did. It never came up in discussion with us.

BL: Do you expect it'll be something that will spread or catch on a little bit, with the amount of shifts we've seen this year? It seems like there are more opportunities.

IS: I don't know. Maybe. Like I said, it's something you've got to be comfortable with. If you don't do it right, it's almost like you're giving away an at-bat. At the same time, most of the guys that get shifted are big power hitters like Ortiz and Prince Fielder.

BL: It seems like that's changing, though. Any kind of hitter can get shifted now.

IS: Yeah, that's true. A lot of guys are getting shifted. It's just sabermetrics and all the studying from the pro scouts. It's definitely changing the game a lot as far as defensive positioning and alignment.

BL: Is it something you plan to keep doing as long as they give you the opportunity? I guess if they stop shifting on you, then you win that way also.

IS: Yeah, as long it's there and teams are doing it, I'll continue to try and get hits out of it that way. Try to get on base.

Date: 4/29
Batter: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 1
Pitcher: Jered Weaver, Angels
Inning: 2
Outs: 2
Count: 0-1
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

Second straight week with a bunt single for Cabrera. There's no sight sadder than a corner infielder staring at a bunt that refuses to go foul.

Date: 4/29
Batter: Carlos Santana, Indians
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 4
Pitcher: Jered Weaver, Angels
Inning: 4
Outs: 2
Count: 1-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

Two innings after Cabrera caught Weaver and the Angels with their shift on, Santana did the same. This Santana attempt went more smoothly than last week’s. He’s no speedster, and he doesn’t look like a great bat-handler, but he’s persistent about this play. He’s now 3-for-6 from 2012–14 when he’s gotten one down.

Date: 4/29
Batter: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 7
Pitcher: Michael Bolsinger, Diamondbacks
Inning: 1
Outs: 2
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

Gonzalez has been one of baseball’s most prolific bunters against the shift over the past two seasons, reaching base six of the seven times he’s dropped one down in fair territory. Make that 7-for-8. This isn’t one of Gonzalez’s better bunts—in the past, he’s often gotten them close enough to the line that no one had a play—but he manages to get the ball by Bolsinger. See, all of you average hitters out there? If Carlos Gonzalez doesn’t deem this a wasted plate appearance, neither should you.

With April in the books, batters are on pace to more than double their total of bunts against the shift. This series is more work than I imagined.

Season Totals
Bunts against the shift in 2014: 17, 12 successful
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2013: 8
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2012: 2

***

This week’s adventures in extreme shifting
This is as good a place as any to note any particularly unusual shifts teams come up with this season, and we got a couple good ones last week.

The first is from last Thursday, in a game between the Cardinals and Mets at Citi Field. In the eighth inning, Lucas Duda came to the plate sporting a spray chart free of groundball base hits to left since the start of the 2013 season.

The Cardinals defense lined up like this:

They stayed like that through the 1-1 pitch, which went wide. And just as Mets play-by-play man Gary Cohen noted that the Cardinals almost had four infielders to the right side of second, they shifted even farther, so that they did have four infielders to the right side of second. Here was the alignment for the 2-1 pitch:

And what did Duda do?

Well, that’s one way to (not) respond. As Cohen asked, “At that point, how do you not just try to roll one to the shortstop hole?”

That’s a question Duda should ask himself before the Mets visit St. Louis in June.

***

The next adventure in extreme shifting came the following day, in a matchup between the Blue Jays and Red Sox. With Colby Rasmus up in the third inning, the Sox shifted shortstop Xander Bogaerts to the right side of second and moved second baseman Dustin Pedroia to right field, but left third baseman Will Middlebrooks at third to guard against the bunt. Once Rasmus swung through strike two, though, the Red Sox changed up their alignment:

Bogaerts went back to short, Middlebrooks moved to second, and Pedroia stayed in right. IE doesn’t have any record of Rasmus bunting to beat the shift in the past two-plus seasons, but the Red Sox went with the two-tiered shift anyway, playing it safe until they were certain that they wouldn’t surrender a free hit, then activating full overshift. The Yankees did something similar when facing Raul Ibanez after he’d bunted on two other teams, moving Derek Jeter from here with 0–1 strikes to here with two.

This is something we might see more often if hitters square around often enough to put the fear of bunts into opposing teams.

***

The nice thing about bunting against the shift is that there are two possible payoffs for the hitter who attempts it: not only might he get an easy single (or more), but he might discourage teams from shifting against him again, which would allow him to go back to pulling the ball to his heart’s content. I’ve been chronicling the first payoff, but not the second. That’s where BP’s Chris Mosch comes in.

Chris has combed through the MLB.TV archives for evidence that hitters whose bunts have shown up in previous editions of this series were treated differently by opposing defenders shortly after they demonstrated their willingness to drop one down.

Brandon Moss
Here’s Moss bunting into an empty left side against the Indians on April 2. Here’s the considerably less empty left side the next time he hit in the same game:

Garrett Jones
Before bunt against the Nationals on April 8:

And two at-bats after bunt against the Nationals on April 8 (the alignment one at-bat after was even more obvious, but the images weren’t clear):

Jacoby Ellsbury
Here’s where Boston’s Jonathan Herrera was standing before Ellsbury beat him with a bunt on April 12:

And here’s where he was the next time Ellsbury came up:

Anthony Rizzo
After bunting against the Yankees in the first game of a doubleheader on April 16, taking advantage of a wide-open left side of the infield, Anthony Rizzo saw this alignment the next time he came to the plate:

When he came up for the first time in the nightcap, the change was even more obvious:

Asdrubal Cabrera
Cabrera beat out a bunt in his first plate appearance against the Royals on April 21. The next time he came up, the third baseman was in, but the broadcast didn’t provide a clear image. The time after that, the third baseman wasn’t in quite as far, but he was still in farther than he had been on the bunt.

Bunting to beat the shift pays, in more ways than one.

Thanks to Chris Mosch for research and transcription assistance and to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for video help.

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

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