Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Bunting in Baseball, Part I--Bunting for a Hit

Whenever a discussion of "old time baseball" comes up, two things should be done IMMEDIATELY:
1. Leave
2. If you're forced to stay, don't listen

Having said that, as long as baseball is played and people have lifespans longer than 20 years, these discussions will never end. A player once said:
               "Base ball today is not what it should be. The players do not try to learn all the fine points of the game
                 as in the days of old, but simply try to get by...The first thing they do each morning is to get the papers
                 and look at the hit and error columns." Bill Joyce
Joyce made this comment in 1916 (the quote is taken from the outstanding Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, p107), proving that for as long as organized baseball has existed, naysayers yearning for the "old days" have been around.

We'll look at bunting and how its use has changed over the years. To do this, we'll analyze play-by-play data from the 1950 and 2011 seasons to look for differences in how the bunt was used and to see if we can detect a "difference" in bunting ability. There are many differences between 1950 and 2011, some obvious, but we can still make useful comparisons:
1. Obviously, there are 30 teams in 2011 vs. 16 in 1950, so one of our primary measures will be percentage of plate appearances as opposed to absolute numbers.
2. The addition of the DH rule in 1973 significantly changed the use of the bunt between the leagues
3. The heightened offense that baseball began to experience in the early '90s and maintained through about 2008 clearly had an effect on its use, but since none of these years are ones we're looking at, it won't matter much. To make a broad generalization, a roughly inverse relationship exists between bunt incidence and runs scored.
4. Most of this discussion will focus only on sacrifice situations, which will be defined as runners on base with less than 2 outs. Before we do that, let's review how bunting for a hit (defined in this case as bunting with the bases empty, the easiest way to determine that the batter really DID want to get on base via the bunt):

 I was going to separate this by pitchers and non-pitchers, but the vast majority (142 of the 159 at-bats in 1950, 823 of 839 in 2011) were by position players, so it wasn't relevant. The overall point is abundantly clear--bunting for a base hit IS an excellent strategy and works. It also isn't done very often, since there were over 95,000 at-bats for the 2011 season (about 58% of total at-bats) with no runners on base. Of course, not all are ideal bunting situations (losing 12-0 with two outs and the bases empty doesn't exactly scream out "Lay one down!"), but this merely shows that when executed properly, bunting for a hit works.

The following lists will show the top bunters (by plate appearance) in all situations for both 1950 and 2011 (min 20 PA):
 Even accounting for 8 fewer games in the 1950 season vs. 2011, this is still a small number of players who attempted to bunt at least 20 times in the season. The notable exception is Gil Hodges, who hit 32 HR with 113 RBIs, not the typical profile for a bunter.

It is interesting to note that five of the top six bunt attempters played in the AL in 2011. The profile of these players is similar--top of the order hitters generally bereft of power.

When we take all bunts together, the following emerges:

The next post will begin taking these numbers apart. It must be stated that all these numbers are taken from play-by-play data where a bunt was actually attempted, regardless of the outcome--a bunt, strikeout, pop out, foul out, whatever. This does NOT include situations where the bunter may have made an attempt in the first pitch or two but eventually hit away, nor does it reflect whether a situation SHOULD HAVE required a bunt--these types of instances can't be measured.

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