June 13, 2014
This Week in Bunting to Beat the Shift, 6/13
In April, I started a season-long series devoted to tracking bunts for base hits with the infield shift in effect; this is the ninth 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 June 5–11; as always, the list of bunts comes courtesy of Inside Edge. I have five new bunts against the shift to show you, plus the latest research from Chris Mosch on how defenses are counter-adjusting to the threat of the bunt. Let’s get started.
Batter: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 3
Pitcher: Nick Tepesch, Rangers
Shift type: 15
On an 0-0 count, Cabrera, a relatively prolific anti-shift bunter, attempts to drop one down but sends it foul.
The Rangers’ defense didn’t adjust, so on the very next pitch, Cabrera tried it again.
That’s bad bunt, right back to the pitcher, but Cabrera gets points for persistence.
Batter: Chase Utley, Phillies
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014:
Pitcher: Alfredo Simon, Reds
Shift type: 52
Not a great bunt, but Utley almost made it work. He’s a smart player who likes to play the percentages, so it’s surprising that he doesn’t do this more often. Could it be because of one memorable time when he tried it, fouled the pitch off, and immediately afterward did something that must have made him very happy that he hadn’t gotten the bunt down? Think back to Game One of the 2008 World Series:
With the Rays employing an extreme shift against the left-handed hitting Utley, he simply tried to reach base against hard-throwing lefty Scott Kazmir. Utley bunted the first pitch, fouling it down the third-base line. He checked on a close 1-2 pitch before ripping Kazmir's next offering into the right-field seats to put the Phillies ahead 2-0.
"I guess it turned out pretty well," Utley said. "The third baseman was playing shortstop. I figured with a guy on first and one out, I'd try to create something at that point. It was foul, but it ended up to turn out pretty good for us."
Ever since then, maybe whenever Utley has considered bunting to beat a shift, his next thought has been, “But if I don’t bunt, maybe I’ll hit a home run that proves to be the game-winner in a World Series game!” See? Now it makes sense.
Batter: Hank Conger, Angels
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 1
Pitcher: Jesse Chavez, A’s
Shift type: 1
A catcher running, a great fielder fielding, and still the A’s are powerless to prevent the single.
Batter: Chris Davis, Orioles
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 0
Pitcher: Jake Peavy, Red Sox
Shift type: 1
“We’ve all be waiting for Davis to drop one down the third-base line against the shift,” Eduardo Encina wrote in The Baltimore Sun after Davis picked up this single. When he finally dropped one down, he looked like he’d been doing it for years. The umpires made the right call after reviewing the replay.
Things haven’t gotten very well at the plate for Davis this season—thus far, he’s been a big win for PECOTA, who projected him to a tee—and this successful bunt attempt might be a manifestation of his frustration.
Batter: Luis Valbuena, Cubs
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 0
Pitcher: Charlie Morton, Pirates
Shift type: 1
Fielding bunts barehand is hard.
Bunts against the shift in 2014: 41, 25 successful
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2013: 25
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2012: 11
Recently, Inside Edge reconfigured their software to allow the recording of attempted and threatened bunts to beat the shift in addition to those that were actually put in play. This is obviously pretty important; as many of you have pointed out, looking at how often bunts against the shift in fair territory result in hits tells us something, but the rate at which hitters fail to get the bunt down is also an important part of the picture. Yes, players are batting .625 when they drop a bunt down against the shift so far this season, which would seem to make bunting a no-brainer, but to say so for sure, we need to determine how often attempts come up empty.
To that effect, here’s the latest list of threatened/attempted bunts from the past week that led to fouls or taken balls or strikes. Eventually, we’ll have a large enough sample to say something about how often bunt attempts give birth to bunts.
After the (Bunted) Ball
Here’s this week’s report from Chris Mosch on how defenses adjusted (or didn’t adjust) to the bunters from last time—as well as some insight into an anticipatory tactic against hitters who might be disposed to bunt against the shift in the future. —Ben Lindbergh
The last time we checked in with the Mets first baseman, he laid down a flawless bunt along the third base line, inspired by the following defensive alignment:
Duda came to bat with the bases empty in just one other at-bat during this game, and he fell into an 0-2 hole before either broadcast showed Philadelphia’s infield alignment. The Phillies acknowledged Duda’s newfound bunting prowess the next day but didn’t seem overly concerned. Prior to A.J. Burnett’s first pitch to Duda, Jimmy Rollins is closer to the line, but still playing fairly deep…
…but after just one pitch, Rollins moves back to practically the same spot he had been standing in when Duda squared around the day before.
The Reds weren’t implementing the classic full overshift against the Arizona backstop when he dropped down a bunt single, but Todd Frazier wasn’t playing nearly as deep and was much closer to the third base line during Montero’s subsequent trips to plate. Here’s a screenshot moments after Montero puts a ball in play the next day.
Gonzalez laid down his picturesque bunt two weeks ago during his last at-bat of Colorado’s weekend series with the Tribe, so we didn’t get the chance to see how Cleveland would have responded. However, the Diamondbacks—who were also beaten by a Gonzalez bunt earlier this season—have learned how to align their infield defense prior to two-strike counts against CarGo.
Two weeks ago, I introduced the idea that some teams were going from playing nearly straightaway to using a full overshift once the count went to two strikes against certain pull-heavy lefties whom they deemed threats to bunt. This was inspired by the Orioles using a two-strike overshift numerous times against Michael Bourn and the Pirates doing it a couple of times against both Denard Span and Danny Espinosa. Last week, I found two new candidates, as the Orioles did this twice to Leonys Martin and the Yankees tried out the concept a few times against Coco Crisp.
The newest player to possibly join the club this week is Boston leadoff hitter Brock Holt. Initially, it was difficult to say with as much certainty as in the previous cases whether the motive behind the opposing team’s defensive positioning was the threat to bunt, as Holt has yet to record a bunt hit during his short time in the major leagues. However, the defensive alignments that the Orioles used against him this week follow the same pattern as our previous cases, and Holt has shown on at least one occasion this season that he’s capable of laying down an effective bunt attempt for a base hit.
We start things off in the top of the fourth inning of this past Monday’s game between the Red Sox and Orioles, with Bud Norris pitching to Holt. Prior to Norris’ 0-1 offering, MASN provides us with a great shot of Baltimore’s defensive alignment.
Shortly after Holt takes strike two, Don Orsillo and Jerry Remy of the Boston broadcast booth pick up on J.J. Hardy and Manny Machado shifting over to their left. NESN accompanies the conversation between the two with a visual for the viewers at home.
Both announcers are taken back by what Inside Edge reports is the first full overshift ever used against Holt, with Remy saying, “Now with two strikes, they’re going to play Holt to pull. They’re going to put the infield in a shift. … It’s kind of unusual because in most cases, hitters get very defensive with two strikes, or they should be. And a lot of times they slap the ball to the opposite field, but they’re playing this just the opposite.”
I was hesitant to immediately lump this case in with the ones before it, partly because Holt had yet to lay down a bunt for a base hit during his 272 career plate appearances before this sequence and partly because the Orioles have been one of the most proactive teams in the league when it comes to shifting within a count. The majority of shuffling the infield’s defensive alignment in two-strike counts occurs when a team plays the hitter the opposite way, just as Baltimore did against Miguel Cabrera during the fifth inning of this game versus Detroit on May 14.
Here’s Cabrera fouling off a 1-0 pitch…
…and then grounding out to a fairly straightaway infield alignment on a 2-2 pitch in the same at-bat.
The reasoning behind taking off the full overshift with two strikes falls along the lines of Remy’s explanation for why he thought Baltimore’s shift against Holt seemed strange. Playing hitters to go the opposite way with two strikes shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The reason I wanted to outline Baltimore’s shifts within a count is that there is a precedent for Buck Showalter’s club to shift batters to pull with two strikes in cases other than the ones involving our bunters, such as against Chris Carter on June 1.
It’s for this reason that I didn’t immediately throw the “threat to bunt” label on Baltimore’s rationalization to use a two-strike shift against Holt. However, after looking at the situation more closely, there are a couple reasons why I believe this is the case with Holt.
First, there’s the depth of the third baseman. Early in the count, Machado is playing about 2-3 steps off the infield grass before moving to just in front of the outfield grass with two strikes (and in later at-bats, Machado plays even shallower early in the count, as far as the edge of the infield grass). If there were no concern about Holt bunting, it would be logical that Machado would simply play deeper to cover more ground.
Second, Holt’s spray chart with two strikes closely resembles his spray chart in any other count. Granted, Holt has only about half a season’s worth of plate appearances at the major league level, but there hasn’t been any indication that he pulls the ball any more frequently with two strikes than he does in any other count. At the very least, there’s a lack of evidence that suggests that the decision to implement a full overshift with two strikes against Holt came because of his count-specific hit tendencies. As the case appeared to be with Bourn, Span, Martin and others, the more reasonable explanation seems to be because the threat of the bunt has disappeared with two strikes (or at least comes with an extremely high cost to the batter).
After some digging, I did find that Holt has attempted one bunt in a non-sacrifice situation during his major league career. It was a well-executed drag bunt that took some hustle and a nice glove flip by Indians pitcher T.J. House to retire him.
So it appears that Holt is fully capable of laying down a bunt for a hit and would probably do so with relative ease if he were given the whole left side of the infield to work with. Sure enough, the Orioles went back to the two-strike shift against Holt the next day.
Here’s Baltimore’s infield behind Chris Tillman with a 1-0 count to Holt…
…followed by a full overshift right before Holt grounded Tillman’s 2-2 offering just beyond the reach of a diving Hardy for a single. —Chris Mosch
Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for video assistance.
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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Chris Mosch is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
Click here to see Chris's other articles.
You can contact Chris by clicking here