Jeff McNeil hit it where they weren’t.

Jeff McNeil hit it where they weren’t.
Image: Screenshot courtesy SNY (Getty Images)

This era of Major League Baseball can be defined by a multitude of things: the increased usage of analytics, or perhaps the enormous surge in both home runs and strikeouts. However this era eventually gets defined, one thing is for certain, the bunt is a thing of the past.

We still see the lost art of the bunt used often in the National League. Most pitchers will square around with runners on base in order to move that runner into scoring position. Outside of that though, bunts get laid less often than myself. But why though? We often hear players and fans alike complain about how popular defensive shifting has become against certain hitters.

Lefty sluggers have been hit the hardest by this trend. Throughout 2021, left-handed hitters face defensive shifts 52.5 percent of the time. Righties only face a shift 16.5 percent of the time. While Major League Baseball is experimenting with new rules at the Double-A level in an effort to limit usage of the shift, but until that rule makes its way to the Major League level, hitters will have to continue facing defenses like this:

That’s four infielders on the right side of second base, and while obviously this circumstance is an outlier — not every shift looks like this — it often feels like it isthis. Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking “Why don’t the hitters just hit the ball to the opposite side?” That’s a good question — as the saying goes: “Hit it where they ain’t.”

However, hitting a baseball exactly where you want is much more difficult than most people realize. It’s much easier to do so by bunting though. Bunting gives a hitter so much bat control, and that control allows hitters to put the ball on the left or right side with much greater ease. It seems like a very easy counter to the shift. If the defense gives you the entire left side of the field, why not just bunt and reach first base? Well, there are a few counter-arguments.

1) Bunting is a skill that takes a while to learn

Bunting isn’t just something that everyone can do immediately. For example, National League pitchers don’t practice hitting; they practice bunting. Day after day, year after year, every time they take BP, they’re told to drop down some bunts so they can become the most efficient sacrifice hitters possible. Even with NL pitchers practicing bunting so often, things like this still happen:

That’s Max Scherzer breaking his nose while attempting to lay down a bunt. He’s been laying down bunts for years, ever since he joined the Washington Nationals in 2015. Yet it can still be difficult to put bunts exactly where you want them. If it’s that tough for pitchers who practice it, just imagine how difficult it must be for hitters to learn that technique.

It’s definitely hard, but there are players today who’ve shown us that it’s not impossible. Players like the Giants’ Brandon Belt as well as Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo for the Yankees have made efforts in past offseasons to learn how to bunt in order to combat the shift. Now, in 2021, each of them has become a legitimate threat to lay down a bunt if the defense gives them too much space. To be fair, Gallo has stated in the past that learning to bunt isn’t as “simple” as it seems. If you foul your bunt off twice in a row, all of a sudden, you’re down 0-2 in the count, you can’t bunt anymore, the defense is still shifted to your strong side, and the pitcher has every tool at his disposal to punch you out.

That being said, Belt, Gallo, and Rizzo have each clearly improved at bunting, and in 2021, the three of them have combined for 10 bunt hits on 14 bunts in play. That’s a .714 average, so yeah, not too shabby.

2) Don’t take the bat out of your best hitter’s hands

Another argument against bunting is that doing so effectively stops your best hitter from potentially recording an extra-base hit. I don’t mind this argument, and I believe it really comes down to who is hitting behind your best hitter. If the next hitter in the lineup is capable of driving runners home, then putting somebody on base is never a bad idea. However, if your lineup is thin and your best hitter doesn’t have much protection, taking the bat out of his hands could theoretically limit your offensive potential even if it means putting a runner on first to start an inning.

During an interview in 2018, 3-time All-Star Daniel Murphy said:

“I haven’t really stolen bases for five or six years. If I drop a bunt down, what am I gonna do? I’m stuck at first base, so what I’ve done is ask our ballclub to get two more singles, or I’ve asked someone else to hit a double. If 7 percent of balls on the ground go for extra bases, someone is probably going to have to hit one in the air to score me from first. So what I’ve tried to do is hit a double every single time because it’s really difficult to get three hits.”

Basically, he’s saying that laying a bunt down just puts the pressure on the hitters behind him, and doesn’t give his team that much better a chance to score runs. However, would Daniel Murphy feel this same way if he knocked a line drive back up the middle? It’s the same result in the scorebook. The official scorekeeper is putting a ‘1B’ by your name either way, so I’m not sure I understand this argument. It just sounds like a pride thing, and that brings me to my next point.

3) Pride

A lot of hitters don’t like bunting to beat the shift, because it feels like taking the easy way out. Sure, it might work, but it doesn’t feel good. It’s like playing Madden on rookie mode — you win, but at what cost? Baseball players love beating a pitcher straight up. When he throws to them, it’s their job to swing for a hit, not dribble a pathetic little roller down the third base line and leg it out.

I’ve never really understood this argument. Obviously, Ichiro is the first person that comes to mind when countering this argument. He made an entire Hall of Fame career out of slap singles and swinging bunts coupled with great defense, and he is one of the most beloved and respected players in MLB history. Players are paid to get on-base. If it were me, I’d be more than willing to lay down a bunt. Not only would I get on-base more often, theoretically. It would also force defenses to respect that option, and hopefully, they’d start shifting less often when I was at the plate. Unfortunately, I have the hand-eye coordination of a bowl of clam chowder, so that situation will never come up.

I’ve always considered myself a man of analytics. I live and die by wOBA, wRC+, ISO, and FIP when evaluating players, and bunting is nothing short of a sin in the analytics world. However, bunting against the shift has always been my guilty pleasure, so I took some time this week to evaluate whether or not bunting against the shift really works, and why it should be done more often. Keep in mind, the numbers I am about to quote are through September 8 of the MLB season. Therefore, a few bunts like that beauty from Jeff McNeil last night will not be included in the data:

Through Thursday, there were 150 hitters across MLB with at least one bunt hit. Of those 150 players, 12 are pitchers, so let’s discard them. When they bunt, they’re not going for a hit most of the time. Of the remaining 138 players, 68 bat lefty, 47 bat righty, and 23 are switch-hitters. Their total batting average on bunts is .440. They are reaching base on 44 percent of their bunt attempts. That’s insane! Lefties are hitting .478, righties .376, and switch-hitters .464. That’s a huge discrepancy between righties and lefties, and while I can’t prove it, that .464 average for switch-hitters makes me think they tend to bunt more from the left side of the plate than the right.

Now, why is there such a big discrepancy between lefties and righties? I had a lot of theories. For one, lefties are closer to first base by about a step and a half. However, that small head start toward first base isn’t big enough to explain an over 100-point difference. Well, what about speed? Maybe these hitters on the left side are just faster and can leg out those bunt attempts more often.

Actually, according to data recorded by Baseball Savant, lefty hitters with at least one bunt hit this year have an average speed of 27.293 feet/second. Meanwhile, righty hitters with at least one bunt hit have an average speed of 27.959 feet/second. They are much faster, but they still can’t reach base nearly as often. In fact, of all lefty hitters with at least four bunt hits on the year, their average sprint speed is only 27.544 feet/second. That number climbs to 28.5 for all righties. And still, while the righties are much faster, those lefties are hitting .587 while those righties are hitting .380. The only thing that makes sense is shifts faced.

I might get a lot of backlash for this, but perhaps lefty hitters should start practicing how to bunt more effectively. I’m not saying to do it every time against the shift. There are dozens of situations where trying to beat the shift with a full swing makes more sense. However, by bunting more often in favorable situations, lefties should, theoretically, force defenses to respect the bunt more often and, in turn, face less shifts, therefore, giving them more opportunity for base knocks. In all fairness though, I will admit that Gallo, Belt, and Rizzo have not seen fewer shifts against them in wake of their ability to bunt. Gallo still faces a shift 95 percent of the time, Belt 86 percent, and Rizzo 74.4 percent.

I’m not saying that all hitters need to learn how to bunt right away, but adding a tool to your arsenal to beat defenses is never a bad move. Even if hitters come out net even on their bunts compared to when they swing away, it would still be beneficial to hitters, because defenses would be forced to respect that option. That being said, at least in 2021, hitters have come out net positive. While I know these numbers I’ve listed don’t account for attempted bunts that were missed or fouled or hitters that recorded zero bunt hits, but have tried on multiple occasions, a .478 average for lefties speaks for itself. Even if that number were to drop by 100 points, I’d take a 37.8 percent chance to reach first any day of the week.

There’s a popular saying in baseball: “Leadoff walks always come around.” So, why don’t we treat leadoff hits the same way? Rather, why don’t we treat leadoff bunt singles the same way? It’s the same concept, but that last option is frowned upon for some reason. If hitters can get comfortable enough at the plate to lay down a bunt, go for it. I understand most hitters may not be there yet, or for a long while, but based on how effective it can be, I don’t see why more hitters aren’t at least attempting to add bunting to their arsenal.