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April 25, 2014

BP Unfiltered

This Week in Bunting to Beat the Shift, 4/25

by Ben Lindbergh


Earlier this month I started a season-long series 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 17-23, with the list of bunts against the shift again supplied by Inside Edge. We have a bunch of new bunts to talk about—so many, in fact that it’s starting to look like hitters are putting two and two together (or in this case, two and .249, the league-wide batting average through Thursday).

Date: 4/19
Batter: Joe Mauer, Twins
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 1 (0 successful)
Pitcher: Bruce Chen, Royals
Inning: 5
Outs: 0
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

This isn’t an overshift, but the third baseman was playing back and well off the line, which was enough for Mauer to dub the alignment a shift. “They just went up three runs,” he said. “We need baserunners, and I’m leading off. If they’re giving it to me, why not?” Why not, indeed. Tell all your teammates!

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire also established himself as pro-bunting-to-beat-the-shift, saying, “It’s a base hit. It doesn’t matter. If he hits a line drive, everybody’s OK with it. If he drops a drag bunt down, everybody says, ‘Oooh.’ That’s just playing the game. That’s just being heads-up and taking what they’re giving you. I like that. I think that’s good.” It didn’t hurt that this bunt led to a two-run rally.

Date: 4/20
Batter: Ian Stewart, Angels
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Rick Porcello, Tigers
Inning: 1
Outs: 2
Count: 0-0
Runners: 1
Outcome: Single

Porcello spent the past two seasons pretending he had no third baseman, just so he could be pleasantly surprised whenever Miguel Cabrera made a play. The instincts ingrained during all those hours of make-believe kicked in quickly and allowed him to barehand the ball, but the throw went wide—which was fortunate for Stewart, who seemed surprised that there was one.

Date: 4/21
Batter: Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Jeremy Guthrie, Royals
Inning: 2
Outs: 2
Count: 2-1
Runners: 0
Outcome: Single

This looks a lot like the alignment the Royals used against Mauer on the first bunt above. Guthrie makes a good play, but Cabrera beats out the off-balance throw.

Date: 4/22
Batter: Raul Ibanez, Angels
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Jordan Taylor, Nationals
Inning: 3
Outs: 0
Count: 0-0
Runners: 0
Outcome: Groundout

Ibanez, bless his heart, so badly wants to bunt. On April 6, we saw him bunt the ball too softly to get by the pitcher, and the same thing happens here.

“I worked on that in spring training," Ibanez told MLB.com beat writer Alden Gonzalez. "Yeah, I'm going to continue to do that. And hopefully I'll do it better, too. It kind of goes against every rule that you've ever learned about bunting, because you have to bunt it hard. I've got the right angle on it, but I keep catching it off the end of the bat, like you were taught coming up through the minor leagues."

It took Ibanez about 10 years in professional baseball to learn how to hit, so it could be a while before he’s an above-average bunter. Once he gets the hang of it, though, it will keep him in the majors until he turns 50. For now, he still has the support of his skipper, Mike Scioscia, who said, “If we need a baserunner in the eighth inning, and if he can just put the bunt down and walk to first base, that's a very high-percentage play for him to get on base.”

Date: 4/22
Batter: Carlos Santana
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 4 (2 successful)
Pitcher: James Shields, Royals
Inning: 1
Outs: 2
Count: 0-0
Runners: 1
Outcome: Groundout

This is the fifth time Santana has bunted to beat the shift in the past two-plus seasons. He had the whole left side open, but he bunted it right back to Shields, lowering his 2012–14 success rate to 40 percent.

Date: 4/23
Batter: Bryce Harper, Nationals
Bunts against the shift by this batter from 2012–2013: 0
Pitcher: Jered Weaver, Angels
Inning: 6
Outs: 0
Count: 2-2
Runners: 1
Outcome: Foul out

There’s no bigger booster of the bunt to beat the shift than me, but even I’ll acknowledge that attempting it with two strikes, a good hitter with the platoon advantage at the plate, and a runner already on is madness. Harper’s bat is so embarrassed to be used in this way that it refuses to break or bounce satisfactorily.

Twitter tips/related links:

Right now, my feed from Inside Edge includes only bunts that landed between the baselines, which means that I may be neglecting players like Pena, who try to bunt to beat the shift but don’t succeed. This isn’t entirely fair, since when it comes to beating the shift, it’s at least partially the thought that counts. Pena tried to do exactly what the players above who got GIFs did, but his flesh failed him. I sent the tweet above to IE, and the company is considering attaching logged shifts to every pitch in which a shift is in place instead of only the at-bat-ending pitch, so players like Pena may soon get their due as bad, but well-intentioned bunters.

In the meantime, read this post from Jeff Sullivan, who chronicled Pena’s awkward attempts to beat the shift in all four of his plate appearances in that game. Then go read this comment on that post, which makes the intriguing suggestion that switch-hitters should sacrifice the platoon advantage and bat from the same side as the pitcher in order to beat the shift (or at least to make the opposing infielders run around a lot).

Season Totals
Bunts against the shift in 2014: 11, 7 successful
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2013: 6
Bunts against the shift through this date in 2012: 0

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

4 comments have been left for this article.

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