Tuesday, April 3, 2018

On bunts and shifts

Brian Dozier's complaint about Chance Sisco's bunt on Sunday drew enough blowback Monday that he tried to defend it by noting that the Orioles had not held Ryan LeMarre on first in the top of the ninth:

“When they didn’t hold our runner on, they conceded to the fact they didn’t want us to steal, so we didn’t steal.”

I'm not going to try to sort out that sentence or hunt for the logic in it. I'm more interested in posing and exploring this question: Why are bunts against the shift so rare that a veteran such as Dozier can believe that doing so violates the game's ethics?

Let's begin by making and testing these assertions:

  • Teams shift to get more outs than they would get playing in a conventional alignment.
  • Teams shift in the belief that the specific hitter either will not or cannot adjust to take advantage of the open spaces OR
  • if he does, that the result is an acceptable tradeoff for keeping the hitter from pulling the ball.

The first seems rather self-evident, although Joe Posnanski also sees a mind-games element to the strategy. Which ties into the second point. Hitting is difficult, and the shift arguably plays with the hitter's mind.

The third might be the most interesting one. Posnanski writes that researchers believe Ted Williams, the most famous inspiration for overshifts, went 13-for-16 bunting against those shifts, "a sweet little .813 average."

OK, let's knock that down a little. Let's say that your typical left-handed hitter facing a shift -- someone like Sisco -- can bunt .600 against the shift. Let's further concede that that will all be singles, with no walks or HBPs, so that .600 batting average on bunts translates to a .600 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage.

I differentiate here between righties and lefties because there is a significant difference in the shifts. The shifts Dozier faces leave the first baseman still relatively close to the bag, because somebody has to take the throw. The shift Sisco bunted against had nobody near third and thus all he had to do was get the bunt past Berrios. It's a little more difficult to bunt against the right-handed shift, but hardly impossible.

Anyway, back to our bunter with the theoretical slash line of .600/.600/.600. How many hitters can reasonably expect an OPS of 1.200 swinging away? Barry Bonds at his steroidal peak. Williams had a few years in that vicinity. The likes of Chance Sisco or Max Kepler can only dream of such heights.

And.600 seems fairly conservative, especially for someone like Kepler or Eddie Rosario, who can actually run. It might be something closer to .800, and even Bonds and Williams didn't put up 1.600 OPSes.

If hitters bunted aggressively against overshifts, the shifts would quickly disappear. If Kepler bunted everytime he came up against a shift that left third base open, teams would quickly stop shifting against him. Why make him a .600 or .750 hitter? It might take only one game for the shifts to stop.

Nobody's tried that yet, however. Maybe it's because hitters doubt their ability to bunt even when there is no defense offered. Maybe they believe it's a surrender to the opposition or an admission of weakness. I have a colleague who derides bunting as "skirt ball."

Just because Williams responded to the shift with defiance doesn't make that the right approach for everybody.

1 comment:

  1. Sam Miller's take in ESPN on unwritten rules is well worth reading. . . . .