CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Pebble Hunting: The Be... (05/02)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Overthinking It: Three... (04/29)
Next Column >>
Overthinking It: Catch... (05/07)
Next Article >>
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: The... (05/05)

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

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

tannerg

"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."

This is a quote from a guy who got cut by two AAA teams last season?

May 02, 2014 13:37 PM
rating: 3
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yeah, Stewart has said some things in the past that might make you wonder whether he has an inflated sense of his own skills. On the other hand, he's a former fourth-overall-rated prospect who's had a 25-homer season in the majors. Going from that to struggling to stick in the big leagues can't be an easy adjustment to make.

May 02, 2014 16:50 PM
 
jdeich

It may be worth tracking who fields each bunt. I recall A-Rod having a lot of trouble with bunts when he came to the Yankees, presumably because the charge-scoop-throw action was much less used during his prior shortstop days. Shortstops also probably don't practice bare-hand grabs often.

Bunting when the shortstop is the lone left-side defender might be an even more fruitful tactic, even though shortstops are usually excellent defenders in the general sense.

May 02, 2014 13:47 PM
rating: 1
 
BlazingFastba11

It would be interesting to track the effects of all bunt ATTEMPTS against the shift. You are doing a great job tracking the times the batter actually gets the bunt down, but how about the times the batter attempts to bunt and misses or fouls off the pitch or pops it up? What happens to the batter's OPS after a failed bunt attempt? Does getting himself have a large negative effect or is it negligible? Keep up the great work!

May 02, 2014 18:42 PM
rating: 0
 
BlazingFastba11

That last sentence should say "Does getting himself in a hole in the count have a negative effect..."

May 02, 2014 18:43 PM
rating: 0
 
oldbopper

I love your work Ben. I have claimed a probable .750 OBP and consequent .750 SLG for a league record 1,500 OPS. At 12 for 17 the OPS is at 1,412. If baseball is a team sport, which I have been told it is, then what team, in their right mind, wouldn't want a hitter with this OPS batting for them and every team has this hitter in the lineup every time a defense goes into an extreme shift. Even Ryan Flaherty turns into SuperOPSman if the defense shifts against him. It seems that it is time for some team to accept these numbers and go into full attack mode. It would be fun to watch.

May 02, 2014 19:47 PM
rating: 0
 
WaldoInSC

I appreciate your point, but that's only true because a self-selected sample of hitters has bunted. Keep in mind that guys who stink at bunting have not attempted it.

May 03, 2014 08:14 AM
rating: 0
 
oldbopper

Garrett Jones, Brandon Moss, Carlos Santana are all sluggers who have hit over 20 HR's more than once, hardly your prototypical bunters. Everybody in the majors, after all these guys have some talent, should be able to bunt with reasonable success with about 15 minutes in the cage. Even the worst should be easily approach a 1,200 OPS. Not bad when leading off an inning or with a man on first and nobody out.

May 04, 2014 10:07 AM
rating: 0
 
Andy Cochrane

Never understood why more defensive shifts haven't been used before now. In cricket the captain is constantly changing the fielding positions in relation to the batsman and score etc. I know the dimensions of the cricket field are different to a baseball diamond but the same principle should surely be in place.

May 03, 2014 02:23 AM
rating: 0
 
eyleraaron

A lot of the variable for success might reside in the pitcher themselves. A pitcher like Jared Weaver falls hard off the mound towards the first base side during delivery. That being said, I'd imagine a semi-skilled bunter who can get the ball within 3 feet of the third base line has a much higher percentage of success than when someone like Shawn Kelley is on the mound who seems to land more balanced and in line with the plate.

Either way, I'd still justify the shift against the power hitters in the league. If it is the seventh inning, and I'm up by a couple runs, I have no problem letting someone like Carlos Beltran bunt a single down the third base line with no one on. I'll take my chances pitching to Mark Texiera.

May 03, 2014 08:26 AM
rating: 0
 
MGL

One of the problems is that players and managers have an "either/or" mentality when it comes to things like this, and have very little understanding of what a "break even" point is.

For example, with no one on base, and especially with one out, they think that a bunt is an excellent idea, which it is. You probably cannot convince a batter that a bunt can also be an excellent idea with, for example, a runner on second and two outs, or two outs and no one on base in a close game with a power hitter at bat.

Of course, the correct way to look at it is through the lens of "break-even" points. If you have a decent or good bunter and the defense is shifting, a bunt in virtually any situation is probably a good idea.

So front office people need to teach managers and coaches the concept of break-even points, and they in turn need to teach the players.

There is also the issue of, perhaps it is correct to bunt every single time even in situations that do not call for the bunt, in order to force the defense to stop shifting entirely.

Actually, whether to bunt or not is simple. You bunt at a certain percentage such that it would not matter whether the defense shifts or not. That is the game theory optimal (GTO) strategy for the offense. For the defense, if they thought or knew that the offense was acting optimally, they should play a defense such that the WE is the same whether the batter attempts a bunt or not. That is their GTO strategy.

May 03, 2014 21:17 PM
rating: 0
 
oldbopper

I agree with your assessment that players and managers do not understand the statistics in regards to the "break even" point. It seems to me that baseball people see anything less than a 100% success rate as a failure when considering this approach. Every sabermetrician understands that base runners are the foundation for scoring runs and here is a situation in which the defense is offering the offense an opportunity to put men on base at a far greater percentage than in any other method the offense chooses to try. If the object of the offense is to score runs, hit me over the head with a bat if I am wrong here, then every opportunity to bunt into the shift with less than 2 outs must be taken. I am hoping to see a team go all-in on this way to attack the shift to see the results. If effective, and teams abandon, or greatly curtail, use of the shift, statistics show that left handed hitters would see a general .030 increase in their OPS which is very significant.

May 04, 2014 10:40 AM
rating: 0
 
AndersonAdams1

Carlos Santana might want to watch his left foot on his bunt attempts.

May 04, 2014 11:24 AM
rating: 0
 
spmcguire

Great article, thanks. Similarly, I am waiting to see a steal of home due to D shifts. During Twins v Orioles game today, Dozier at third and lefty at the plate. 3B Machado was playing SS depth. He could have taken a 25ft lead with no threat of pick off. Bluffed once. We will see.

May 04, 2014 20:03 PM
rating: 1
 
You must be a Premium subscriber to post a comment.
Not a subscriber? Sign up today!
<< Previous Article
Premium Article Pebble Hunting: The Be... (05/02)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Overthinking It: Three... (04/29)
Next Column >>
Overthinking It: Catch... (05/07)
Next Article >>
Fantasy Article Fantasy Freestyle: The... (05/05)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Fantasy Article Player Profile: David Robertson
Fantasy Article The -Only League Landscape: National League ...
Fantasy Article Tale of the Tape, Dynasty Edition: Nick Burd...
Fantasy Article Dynasty League Positional Rankings: Top 50 R...
Premium Article Rumor Roundup: Huston Street Might Have Reli...
Pitching Backward: In Search of the Winninge...
Rubbing Mud: A Solution Does Not Exist

MORE FROM MAY 2, 2014
Premium Article Prospectus Hit List: Friday, May 2
Premium Article Painting the Black: A Trip Through the NL We...
Premium Article What You Need to Know: A Busy Thursday in Ba...
Premium Article Minor League Update: Games of Thursday, May ...
Fantasy Article Fantasy Starting Pitcher Planner: Week Six
Fantasy Article TTO Scoresheet Podcast: An Interview with Jo...
Daily League Strategy: May 2-4

MORE BY BEN LINDBERGH
2014-05-07 - BP Daily Podcast: Effectively Wild Episode 4...
2014-05-06 - BP Daily Podcast: Effectively Wild Episode 4...
2014-05-05 - BP Daily Podcast: Effectively Wild Episode 4...
2014-05-02 - Overthinking It: This Week in Bunting to Bea...
2014-05-02 - BP Daily Podcast: Effectively Wild Episode 4...
2014-05-01 - BP Daily Podcast: Effectively Wild Episode 4...
2014-05-01 - BP Unfiltered: Baseball Prospectus at Fox Sp...
More...

MORE OVERTHINKING IT
2014-05-15 - Overthinking It: Have Tommy John Surgery, Si...
2014-05-08 - Premium Article Overthinking It: The Masters of the Manufact...
2014-05-07 - Overthinking It: Catcher Framing: The Season...
2014-05-02 - Overthinking It: This Week in Bunting to Bea...
2014-04-29 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Three National Leaguers in ...
2014-04-25 - Overthinking It: Matt Moore, Ivan Nova, and ...
2014-04-24 - Overthinking It: The Obligatory Article Abou...
More...

INCOMING ARTICLE LINKS
2014-06-06 - BP Unfiltered: This Week in Bunting to Beat ...
2014-05-30 - Overthinking It: This Week in Bunting to Bea...
2014-05-28 - Premium Article Overthinking It: Defining Positions in the A...
2014-05-23 - BP Unfiltered: This Week in Bunting to Beat ...
2014-05-16 - BP Unfiltered: This Week in Bunting to Beat ...
2014-05-08 - Premium Article Pebble Hunting: The Baseball Sandbox Experim...