If you have read Moneyball, you know that the sabermetric community has been waging war on the sacrifice bunt for years. The logic is pretty simple. According to baseball prospectus, the Run Expectation with a runner on first and nobody out is higher than when there is a runner on second and one out. In other words, sacrificing an out for an extra base creates a less favorable run environment. While the MLB usually adjusts to sabermetric wisdom rather gradually, the league has adopted this newfound ideology surrounding bunting pretty quickly. The sacrifice bunt has fallen out of fashion for hitters across the board, and for good reason. But so has the art of bunting for hits, which for some hitters, should be employed much more regularly.
There are a few reasons why bunt hits have fallen in the last few decades. For one, there is an increased emphasis on working the count in order to elevate the opposing pitcher’s pitch count. Since bunting for a hit is in large part dependent upon the element of surprise, a successful base-hit bunt will usually occur on the first pitch, which runs counter to the goal of working the count. Another reason that base-hit bunts have experienced a decline is the fact that hitters today are collectively more powerful, a stat that is reflected in growing home run rates across the league.
There is an element of truth in both of these arguments, but both ideas fail to take into account some vital considerations. First off, the notion that bunting prevents hitters from working counts is shortsighted due to the increasing dominance of relievers in the MLB. Getting the starting pitcher out of the game doesn’t do your team any good if you have to face someone that is just as good coming out of the bullpen. In regards to the argument about the growing power output of MLB hitters, I concede that this point is well-founded. Thus I am not arguing that all hitters should start bunting more, but rather only the hitters that satisfy the following criteria:
- Less than 30% Hard contact rate.
- Less than .150 ISO
- Less than 10% BB rate
- BUH% at least 50 points better than batting average
Below is a list of players who, based on this criteria, would have more success if they bunted more frequently:
The most obvious piece of evidence indicating that these players should bunt more is simply how successful they have been at it. All of these players possess BUH% well above league average, despite being ranked among the top 15 in baseball in bunt hits. This means that while teams are more prepared to defend against the possibility that these players will bunt, they are still unable to prevent its success. Some may argue that the reason these guys are able to turn their bunt attempts into hits so frequently is because they pick and choose their spots to lay one down. If these guys start squaring around more regularly, teams will be more prepared and these players lose the element of surprise, or so the argument goes. However, when the defense adjusts in preparation for the bunt, they take themselves out of position to defend against ground balls. Considering the fact that nearly every player on this list has a GB% well above league average, over-adjusting to defend against the bunt could leave these teams vulnerable against ground balls.
These stats are only important when considering the opportunity cost of bunting. In other words, what are these hitters foregoing in order to risk reaching base via the bunt? The answer is they are not sacrificing much. As the table shows, all of these hitters have Isolated SLG % (ISO) well below average meaning most of their hits are singles. This point is further driven home by these hitters inability to make hard contact. With the exception of Danny Espinosa, all of the players on this list have demonstrated an inability to consistently make hard contact.
As is the case with most speedy hitters, most of these hitters have below average walk rates. Pitchers simply do not want to walk hitters who can do more damage on the base paths than they can at the plate. This fact is reflected by the fact that all of these hitters seen a higher percentage of fastballs than league average.
You may have noticed that Danny Espinosa is a bit of an outlier on this list. He doesn’t have the high GB%, low ISO, or low Hard% like the other guys. I am not going to try to use advanced statistics to justify his place on this list. The only justification needed is that Espinosa is simply really good at bunting.
While bunting has fallen out of fashion in recent years, there are still players who would benefit by trying to bunt for hits more frequently. Average bunts with a fast baserunner put pressure on the defense. Good bunts with fast baserunners are indefensible.