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July 12, 2007

Schrodinger's Bat

Dropping One Down

by Dan Fox

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"He just pointed at the ball. That's all he could do."
Willy Taveras, commenting on his bunt single against the Yankees' Roger Clemens on June 20th.

---

There are times when the fan in you simply has to marvel at what you see on the field. This season, watching the Rockies as regularly as I do, I've been somewhat amazed by the bunting exploits of center fielder Willy Taveras. After his acquisition by the Rockies from the Astros (along with Jason Hirsh) in the Jason Jennings trade this past offseason, I had assumed that he would help shore up the outfield defense in the vast spaces of Coors Field. However, I was not prepared for how often nor how well he bunts for hits. It seems that he can drop one down the third base line at any time against any infield configuration, and the vast majority of the time, beats the throw to first.

At the All-Star break he'd already recorded 27 bunt hits among his 40 infield hits, already breaking the previous Rockies record held by Juan Pierre (24) in 2002. This was despite his having to battle nagging injuries, including a groin injury in early May that sidelined him for almost a week, and then being hit on the right index finger while attempting to bunt on May 28th, and a right quadriceps injury that caused him to sit out of the starting lineup in three of the last five games before the break. Oh, and he says he's still not adjusted to altitude.

All of this got me wondering how his success rate and 27 bunt hits stacks up against performances of the past 40 years. From there we can delve into other topics, including the circumstances where bunting for hits normally occur, as well as their value and strategic implications.

The Historical Context

Before we navigate the deeper waters, let's take a quick look at the leaders in terms of bunt hit attempts for 2007:


Name                Bunts    Hits   Pct
Willy Taveras         36      27   .750
Juan Pierre           28       8   .286
Corey Patterson       14       6   .429
Gerald Laird          14       7   .500
Coco Crisp            12       4   .333
Jose Reyes            12       7   .583
Joey Gathright        11       6   .545
Carlos Gomez          11       6   .545
Alfredo Amezaga       10       6   .600
Tony Gwynn            10       4   .400
Reggie Willits        10       4   .400

This list comprises all those who have been charged with 10 or more at-bats while bunting this season, thereby excluding all successful sacrifices and most sacrifice attempts. This measure, however, still includes plays where a lead runner is forced out, and so is not "pure" in the sense of recording only attempts where the batter's intent was only to get a hit. In addition, there are attempts included where the batter attempted to sacrifice but ended up being credited with a hit. We'll have to live with these ambiguities, because if we exclude attempts with runners on, we'll also miss plays on which the batter was credited with a hit when the intent was to do so. However, bunts that result in force outs and attempted sacrifices that go for hits are both reflective of bunting ability, and should cancel each other out to some degree, so I've decided to include both in what follows. It should be noted that this calculation differs from that used on FanGraphs, where bunt hit percentage (BUH%) is calculated with all attempted bunts (even those on which a sacrifice was credited) in the denominator.

Not only has Taveras more than tripled the output of any other player, he has been successful an amazing 75 percent of the time, as opposed to 50-60 percent success rates for bunters as different from one another as Gerald Laird (7 for 14) and Jose Reyes (7 for 12). Overall, there have been 729 attempts in 2007, with 293 successes, good for a rate of 40.2 percent. At first glance, it would seem that with such a high success rate more players should bunt for hits. However, it should be remembered that success is predicated on both skill with the bunt itself, and some measure of running speed, a combination that not many players possess. In addition, when a player decides to bunt, barring an error, he forfeits the opportunity to advance runners more than one base, or put himself into scoring position, or even drive himself in with a home run. Along with the interplay that occurs with the defense, these reasons combine to make the bunt hit attempt a relatively infrequent occurrence, albeit one of the most exciting plays in baseball.

To get a sense of where Taveras' performance fits in historically, let's take a look at the single-season leaders in bunt hits stretching back to 1959.


Year   Name                 Bunts    Hits   Pct
1992   Brett Butler           67      40   .597
1992   Kenny Lofton           67      31   .463
2003   Alex Sanchez           64      31   .484
2005   Willy Taveras          59      30   .508
2003   Juan Pierre            70      29   .414
2004   Alex Sanchez           58      29   .500
2007   Willy Taveras          36      27   .750
2005   Juan Pierre            59      25   .424
2002   Juan Pierre            52      24   .462
1971   Del Unser              36      23   .639
1979   Frank Taveras          28      23   .821
1991   Otis Nixon             50      23   .460
1990   Brett Butler           45      22   .489
1969   Bobby Tolan            34      21   .618
1980   Frank Taveras          24      21   .875
1991   Brett Butler           43      21   .488
1993   Brett Butler           49      21   .429
1995   Otis Nixon             34      21   .618
2006   Willy Taveras          38      21   .553
1964   Maury Wills            43      20   .465
1964   Don Blasingame         23      20   .870
1965   Maury Wills            34      20   .588
1979   Paul Molitor           34      20   .588
1989   Brett Butler           38      20   .526
1997   Otis Nixon             35      20   .571
1998   Neifi Perez            34      20   .588
2004   Juan Pierre            46      20   .435

Included in the list are all those players with 20 or more bunt hits. Only six times has a player accumulated more than 27 bunt hits in a season, and Taveras was one of those, racking up 30 in 2005 (he also had 21 in 38 attempts in 2006, for a success rate of 55.3 percent). Given that Brett Butler had "just" 40 in 1992 while playing for the Braves, there's a very good chance that Taveras will best that mark this year, putting those two well ahead of the pack.

The single-season percentage leaders (with 20 or more attempts) are:


Year   Name                 Bunts    Hits   Pct
1961   Jim Piersall           20      18   .900
1980   Frank Taveras          24      21   .875
1964   Don Blasingame         23      20   .870
1967   Matty Alou             23      19   .826
1979   Frank Taveras          28      23   .821
1980   Dwayne Murphy          20      16   .800
2000   Eric Young             20      16   .800
1999   Roberto Alomar         22      17   .773
2007   Willy Taveras          36      27   .750
1966   Matty Alou             24      18   .750
1959   Tony Taylor            20      15   .750
1996   Kenny Lofton           23      17   .739
2000   Luis Castillo          20      14   .700
2002   Tony Womack            20      14   .700
1978   Bump Wills             22      15   .682

It's unlikely Taveras will be able to eclipse the leaders in this list, but his current pace would keep him in the top 10 and ranking among the best seasons since 1959. Looking at these guys, however, does bring to mind the question of whether the success rate of bunting for hits has changed over time. Was it in fact easier to bunt for hits in the past?

The following graph shows the success rate by year and from it, it is difficult to conclude that bunting for hits was much easier in the past. While there is a downward trend to the data overall, the success rate in the period 1993-2002 approximated that from 1968-1986.

Interestingly, in the smaller samples I have from 1911 and 1922 the success rates were 46.1 percent and 52.3percent respectively, which are in line with the rates since 1959.

While we're here we might as well take a moment to reflect on those players who were not as successful at bunting for base hits:


Year   Name                Bunts     Hits   Pct
1986   Harold Reynolds        20       3   .150
2002   Fernando Vina          31       6   .194
1989   Otis Nixon             24       5   .208
1987   Alfredo Griffin        23       5   .217
2002   Timo Perez             22       5   .227
2004   Dave Roberts           35       8   .229
1986   Ozzie Guillen          26       6   .231
1993   Darren Lewis           21       5   .238
1990   Steve Finley           25       6   .240
1989   Nelson Liriano         28       7   .250
2006   Scott Podsednik        20       5   .250
2006   Chone Figgins          20       5   .250
1963   Lou Brock              26       7   .269
1988   Oddibe McDowell        22       6   .273
1995   Quilvio Veras          21       6   .286

Suffice it to say in these seasons these players might have been better served by simply swinging away.

Nw we can total these up for the period 1959-2007 and build the following leader boards:


Most Attempts                        Most Hits
Name              Bunts  Hits   Pct  Name            Bunts Hits   Pct
Brett Butler       442    226  .511  Brett Butler     442   226  .511
Otis Nixon         344    158  .459  Kenny Lofton     297   175  .589
Juan Pierre        335    140  .418  Otis Nixon       344   158  .459
Maury Wills        307    149  .485  Rod Carew        190   151  .795
Kenny Lofton       297    175  .589  Maury Wills      307   149  .485
Alfredo Griffin    222     84  .378  Juan Pierre      335   140  .418
Omar Vizquel       213    127  .596  Matty Alou       211   133  .630
Roberto Alomar     213    126  .592  Omar Vizquel     213   127  .596
Matty Alou         211    133  .630  Roberto Alomar   213   126  .592
Larry Bowa         211    103  .488  Paul Molitor     179   107  .598

Highest Success Rate (50+ attempts)  Lowest Success Rate (50+ attempts)
Name             Bunts  Hits   Pct   Name           Bunts   Hits  Pct
Steve Garvey       75     62  .827   Pat Listach       57    15  .263
Lee Mazzilli       51     41  .804   Nelson Liriano    63    18  .286
Rod Carew         190    151  .795   Rick Miller       67    21  .313
Dave Hollins       50     38  .760   Darren Lewis     140    44  .314
Manny Mota         55     40  .727   Tommy Davis       56    18  .321
Rob Wilfong        87     63  .724   Chone Figgins     77    25  .325
Don Blasingame     93     67  .720   Joey Gathright    61    20  .328
Mickey Rivers      87     61  .701   Brian McRae      146    49  .336
Jose Valentin      78     53  .679   Cookie Rojas      68    23  .338
Jeff Cirillo       61     41  .672   Ozzie Guillen    127    43  .339

One of the things that is interesting about these lists is that the career leaders in success percentage include several players who you wouldn't expect to be there. Steve Garvey, Dave Hollins, Jose Valentin, and Jeff Cirillo seem particularly out of place, but it should be remembered that these players had relatively few attempts, so they likely caught the defense napping on many or most of their attempts. The fact that Rod Carew still ranks third with 190 attempts testifies to his superior bunting ability, and allows us to award him the crown of "Best Bunter of the Past 40 (or so) Years."

The average success rate for the 208 players with 50 or more career attempts since 1959 is exactly 50 percent. In one sense you would expect these players to have higher success rates, since one of the reasons they're employing the tactic more frequently is their history of success. On the other hand, if defenses know that particular players bunt for hits relatively often, they should adjust accordingly, and thereby drive down the success rate.

At this point Taveras ranks 41st on the success rate list, going 78 for 133 for a .586 success rate, so his success this season is definitely a change from his first two years. Whether his success this season reflects a new skill level or simply a bit of luck is unknown, so it'll be interesting to see whether he can continue having this sort of success, or whether he'll drop back down to his historical norm. Considering only active players, he ranks eighth, as shown in the following table:


Name             Bunts   Hits   Pct
Jeff Cirillo        61     41  .672
Derek Jeter         56     37  .661
Ichiro Suzuki       65     42  .646
Jason Tyner         59     37  .627
Melvin Mora        109     67  .615
Omar Vizquel       213    127  .596
Kenny Lofton       297    175  .589
Willy Taveras      133     78  .586
Mark Loretta        53     31  .585
Edgar Renteria      67     38  .567
Adam Kennedy        52     29  .558
Julio Lugo          84     45  .536
Craig Biggio       154     82  .532
Craig Counsell      64     34  .531
Johnny Damon       101     53  .525
Randy Winn          63     33  .524
Jacque Jones        52     27  .519
David Eckstein      72     37  .514
Corey Patterson    127     64  .504
Marlon Anderson     60     30  .500
Luis Castillo      143     71  .497
Royce Clayton      100     49  .490
Neifi Perez        191     93  .487
Cristian Guzman     98     47  .480
Endy Chavez         82     39  .476
Jose Reyes          73     34  .466
Coco Crisp          82     37  .451
Jack Wilson         85     38  .447
Mike Cameron        50     22  .440
Rafael Furcal      183     78  .426
Juan Pierre        335    140  .418
Scott Podsednik    104     43  .413
Ray Durham          88     36  .409
Jimmy Rollins       74     29  .392
Timo Perez          54     21  .389
Nook Logan          62     24  .387
Willie Harris       50     19  .380
Dave Roberts       187     71  .380
Cesar Izturis       54     20  .370
Curtis Wilkerson    51     18  .353
Joey Gathright      61     20  .328
Chone Figgins       77     25  .325

The Strategic Context

To examine the situational and strategic context in which bunting for hits occurs, I took a look at a subset of the data-the years 1970 through 2006. Let's take a quick look at the data, sliced in various ways:

  • Handedness: It's probably not surprising that left-handed hitters have a natural advantage when bunting for hits, because they're closer to first base to begin with, and can drag the ball by taking an initial step before contact. Of our single-season leaders, six were left-handed, three were switch-hitters, and six were right-handed. Overall, lefties were successful 43.8 percent of the time, and right-handers 37.4 percent. The fact that Taveras is right-handed makes his work this season all the more impressive. Together that adds up to a 40.5 percent success rate.
  • Outs: The relationship between success rate and outs is an inverse one as shown in the following table:

    
    Outs   Success  Frequency
     0       .391     .599
     1       .398     .279
     2       .488     .122
    

    Almost 60 percent of all bunts for hits occur with nobody out, but the success rate is also at its lowest then, at 39.1 percent. With two outs, the success rate goes up to 48.8 percent although those attempts only comprise 12.2 percent of the total. The reason this occurs certainly has a lot to do with the fact that there are more likely to be runners on base with two outs, so hitters are less likely to try a play that will not advance them as far. At the same time, for this very reason the defense is less likely to be expecting a bunt hit attempt with two outs, thereby making it easier to execute.

  • Base Situation: Following on the heels of the previous point, here are the success rates and frequency of attempts by base situation:

    
    Bases           Success Frequency
    Second            .488     .078
    First/Third       .440     .021
    Second/Third      .459     .006
    Empty             .450     .498
    Third             .478     .017
    First             .322     .267
    First/Second      .323     .109
    Loaded            .348     .004
    

    So, nearly half of all attempts occur with the bases empty, with another quarter taking place with just a runner on first. When you then include attempts with runners on first and second you reach 86 percent of all attempts. It's not surprising that the success rate would be lower with runners on first, first and second, or loaded, since the force play allows the defense another option in terms of getting an out. The quality of the bunter also differs in these situations, as better bunters attempt bunt hits with the bases empty, while other players often find themselves in sacrifice situations that then lead to bunt hits, sometimes inadvertently.

  • Base Situation and Outs: The natural next step is to combine the two viewpoints above into a single table that shows success rate and frequency by base situation and number of outs:

    Success Rate By Outs
                        0       1      2
    Empty             .441    .450   .488
    First             .307    .298   .492
    Second            .481    .518   .516
    Third             .359    .467   .498
    First/Second      .337    .259   .424
    First/Third       .333    .439   .502
    Second/Third      .444    .429   .495
    Loaded            .412    .339   .348
    

    As discussed previously, the success rate goes up as the number of outs increases, so it isn't surprising that when combined with the base situation we find that it's almost a 50 percent proposition in many cases with two outs. The cost, of course, is in runner advancement, since it will usually take an additional hit to score a run-for example, the case where bunting with two outs and a runner on second results in a success rate of 51.6 percent. This is not always the case, however, since "unsuccessful" attempts throughout this article also include plays on which the defense made one or more errors; this occurs 4.5 percent of the time.

    Frequency By Outs
                        0       1      2
    Empty             .274    .153   .070
    First             .172    .070   .025
    Second            .064    .011   .003
    Third             .001    .007   .010
    First/Second      .084    .023   .003
    First/Third       .004    .010   .006
    Second/Third      .001    .002   .002
    Loaded            .000    .003   .002
    

    From a frequency perspective there are relatively fewer attempts made with runners on base (with the exception of a runner on first, and runners on first and second) and nobody out, because of the simple fact that runners are less likely to be in those situations. As we move to two outs the distribution evens out.

  • Count: Although our entire data set does not include pitch data, we can take a look at the counts on which the bunts were laid down.

    
    Count         Success  Frequency
    0-0             .422      .694
    0-1             .369      .099
    0-2             .090      .018
    1-0             .438      .057
    2-0             .506      .007
    3-0             .500      .000
    1-1             .409      .069
    1-2             .116      .017
    2-1             .440      .026
    2-2             .136      .007
    3-1             .526      .005
    3-2             .125      .002
    

    The most popular count to attempt a bunt hit on was 0-0, with fully 70 percent of the attempts coming at this time. No balls and one strike, one ball and no strikes, and one ball and one strike combine to make up almost 23 percent of the remainder, meaning that 93% of the bunt attempts occur on one of these three counts. The success rate is highest in hitter's counts (2-0, 3-1, and 2-1, with 1-0 being successful to a lesser extent) since the defense is less likely to be anticipating a bunt on those counts, and because better bunters are more apt to try to lay one down in a situation in which they have a natural advantage in swinging away.

    This table also shows that bunting with two strikes-one of my pet peeves-is seldom a good idea, with 10 percent of such attempts ending in strikeouts.

End Game

As we've hinted at, there are a couple additional aspects of bunting for hits that should be considered. Particularly, we haven't addressed the question of what conditions would be appropriate for different players to try and lay down a bunt and beat it out. Alas, that topic is a little more involved, so we'll have to save it for another day.

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