Isn’t It Ironic … Don’t You Think
Bill James, the father of Sabermetrics, called bunting “usually a waste of time.” Super Agent Scott Boras referred to the defensive shift as “discriminatory”, in part because his client Bryce Harper was struggling against the tactic. How do these extreme comments, embedded in data driven decisions, give us an indication that bunting could be on the rise … and we have data to thank for it.
I can hear Pete Rose and Ted Williams laughing all the way to the bank. Rose used bunting as an act of war on the pitcher. Of his 4256 hits, Rose had 65 bunt singles reaching base at a 69.9% clip. Do the math. Without the bunt, he would still be tied with Ty Cobb at 4,191.
In regards to the defensive shift, MLB introduced it in 1920. Ted Williams encountered it in 1940, as Lou Bourdeau and Cleveland Indians popularized it and saw the “Splendid Splinter” basically ignore it on his way to a career .344 BA and 521 home runs.
So how did we get here? Not to say correlation equals causation, but since James’ comments bunting usage has declined from 1.7% to .7%. At about the same time we saw defensive shifts increase from roughly 3,000 to 33,000 … that’s a 900% increase. The best bet in countering this defensive alignment is hitting a ground ball the opposite way, but its proven difficult to put in motion. Of the roughly 5,000 ground balls this season hit against the shift, less than 10% went to the opposite field. And of those opposite field ground balls only about 20% produced runs. If players could begin to do this on command it would prove to be ideal, because batters have produced well over a .500 average on such plays. Today’s analytic driven theories on hitting do not work that way.
Driven by launch angle, exit velocity and true outcomes, baseball analytics experts have looked past the simplest antidote: depending on the positioning of the fielders, bunt for a base hit. Depending upon the situation a soft ground ball the other way could prove to be as successful as a bunt. Since 2015 bunt attempts away from the shift have been successful to the tune of over 70% of the time, as opposed to opposite field ground balls having a success rate a shade under 50% of the time. The sample size isn’t large, but the evidence of success is at least worth a look.
To his defense, Bill James did later recognize that the “bunt could become valuable versus the shift.” Wouldn’t it be ironic if the same analytics driven approach that purest claim has ruined hitters abilities, could revitalize a new generation of hitters that handle the bat as opposed to just swing the bat. The bunt, opposite field hit, and dare I say, the hit and run could become the inefficiency that data analysts love to find. Hang on old school baseball guys, we could see the pendulum swinging back.