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June 27, 2014

BP Unfiltered

This Week in Bunting to Beat the Shift, 6/27

by Ben Lindbergh and Chris Mosch


In April, I started a season-long series devoted to tracking bunts for base hits with the infield shift in effect; this is the 11th 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 19–25; as always, the list of bunts comes courtesy of Inside Edge. I have five new bunts against the shift to show you, including the first attempt to beat the shift this season by a right-handed batter, plus the latest research from Chris Mosch on how defenses are counter-adjusting to the threat of the bunt. Let’s get started.


Date: 6/21
Batter: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 4
Pitcher: Tony Watson, Pirates
Inning: 8
Outs: 2
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Shift type: 15
Outcome: Out


Rizzo has been responsible for some of this season's best bunting heroics, but this wasn't one of his best efforts, and Watson was quick off the mound.

Date: 6/22
Batter: Junior Lake, Cubs
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 0
Pitcher: Tony Watson, Angels
Inning: 8
Outs: 0
Count: 1-1
Runners: 0
Shift type: 2
Outcome: Single

Right-handed batter bunt alert! Lefties aren't the only ones getting shifted these days, and Lake's groundball spray chart reveals why the Angels were shifting him here.


With the shortstop and third baseman playing deep and toward the third-base bag, Lake tries to bunt the ball up the middle. He directs it toward the second baseman instead, but he beats it out because he has super-speed.

Date: 6/22
Batter: Kyle Seager, Mariners
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 2
Pitcher: Yordano Ventura, Royals
Inning: 2
Outs: 0
Count: 0-0
Runners: 1
Shift type: 15
Outcome: Sacrifice Bunt

A little too tentative. Bunting favors the bold.

Date: 6/23
Batter: Kevin Kiermaier, Rays
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 0
Pitcher: Edinson Volquez, Padres
Inning: 2
Outs: 1
Count: 0-0
Runners: 1
Shift type: 1
Outcome: Single

Pedro Alvarez made this much closer than it could have been, but Kiermaier was too quick for the ball to beat him to the bag.

Date: 6/25
Batter: Asdrubal Cabreara, Indians
Previous Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2014: 4
Pitcher: Ezekiel Spruill
Inning: 7
Outs: 0
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Shift type: 52
Outcome: Out

Efforts like this give bunting to beat the shift a bad name.

One final note: A hearty welcome back to the big leagues to Carlos Pena, bunting-to-beat-the-shift trailblazer. I eagerly await his first 2014 attempt.

Season Totals
Bunts against the shift in 2014: 49, 28 successful
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2013: 29
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2012: 13


Bunt Attempts/Threats
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.

Date

Runners

Hitter

Balls

Strikes

Inning

Outs

Pitcher

Event

Shift

Pitch Result

6/21

0

Kyle Seager

0

1

2

1

Jason Vargas

Bunt Hit Att.

1

F

6/22

0

Alex Avila

0

1

2

0

Josh Tomlin

Bunt Hit Att.

15

F

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. —Ben Lindbergh


Nick Swisher, George Kottaras and Carlos Santana
Swisher’s bunt attempt to beat the shift on June 16 against the Angels probably ranks among the bunts least likely to inspire a change in the opposing team’s defensive alignment. A refresher on Los Angeles’ infield alignment against Swisher and how bad his bunt was:

However, two batters later, his teammate George Kottaras laid a picture-perfect bunt down the third base line. Kottaras didn’t get another at-bat during the series, but the Angels presumably would have brought David Freese in to defend the bunt against him, considering that’s exactly what they did against Swisher the next night.


Swisher’s bunt attempt was poor, and it was his first attempt to beat the shift, yet the Angels countered their defense accordingly. It’s taken most batters at least a decent bunt attempt and a close play at first to push teams to realign their defense, so it seems reasonable that Kottatas beating the shift so easily influenced the Angels to play it safe against Swisher.

The Indians feature another prolific bunter against the shift, Carlos Santana, and with the Angels already mindful of Swisher and Kottaras, a mere attempt at a bunt against the shift changed Los Angeles’ infield alignment against Cleveland’s slugger. During Santana’s first plate appearance of the series (which was before either Swisher’s or Kottaras’ bunt), the Angels made no attempt to defend against a possible bunt by Santana.


But during his first at-bat the next day, Santana squared around on a 2-1 offering and fouled the ball down the third base line. The attempt was poor enough that neither broadcast switched its view to show either the infielders reacting or where exactly the ball ended up. However, it’s fair to assume that Santana—who isn’t the lightest on his feet—wouldn’t be trying to lay down a bunt in a hitter’s count unless he had ample room to work with down the third base line.

The next time Santana stepped to the plate, the Angels took that opportunity away (or rather gave him the entire shortstop hole to try to slap a base hit).


Chase Headley
Headley’s attempt to beat the shift against the Mariners proved futile, as his bunt traveled all of 10 feet and straight back to the pitcher. Neither broadcast showed Kyle Seager in a bases-empty situation with less than two strikes until two days later, so we were unable to see how Seattle reacted in the at-bats immediately following the bunt attempt. However, if the Mariners did subsequently readjust their alignment, the change in philosophy didn’t last long. Here’s their defense against Headley during his second at-bat of the third game between the two clubs.


Thanks to Nick Wheatley-Schaller for video assistance.

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

4 comments have been left for this article.

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