Bunt to beat the shift?

It’s the off-season, so when there’s no baseball, what do we do? We think about baseball!

It's the off-season and renovations have resumed at the old ballyard.

It’s the off-season and renovations have resumed at the old ballyard.

A reader recently sent me an email about how batters should combat the defensive shifts that have become commonplace in baseball. Briefly, for some hitters that are known, based on the latest metrics and spray charts, to be very likely to pull the ball, the team on the field may shift one of the infielders from his normal position to the other side of the diamond. For example, when Anthony Rizzo, a lefty, is at the plate, you are likely to see three infielders between first and second to make it more difficult for Rizzo to hit a base hit to right field. This leaves the left side of the infield vulnerable to hits because there would be only one infielder between second and third.

Our reader wrote: “One of the most amazing opportunities not being used to stop defenses from shifting on hitters is not taking advantage of the bunt, or at the very least learning to hit the opposite way. I realize the number 3, 4, 5 hitters are paid to hit home runs and drive in runs but how many hits are being taken away due to unorthodox defensive shifting? I also realize pitchers will pitch to the side of the plate their defense has shifted. But if I truly wanted to help the team I would learn how to bunt and go the opposite way.

Let’s say the top of the line up averages 4 at-bats/game x 162 games/yr = 628 at-bats/yr if they played every game, so I will use 525 at-bats. So hitting 30 home runs in a year that is 5.7% of the time they hit a home run. Let’s assume a batting average of .285 to .300 or 29-30% of the time they get a hit.  If they are giving me the entire opposite side of the field due to their shift, if I knew how to bunt well my odds of successfully bunting would be 60% or higher.  If I am a 3, 4, 5 hitter and leading off in a inning being shifted against and successfully bunted, I am in a position to be bunted over [to second base] at the very least and put into scoring position with 1 out.

With all the teams using analytics do they have a statistical argument why teams are not teaching these so-called power hitters how to bunt?  How many hits per year are these players losing due to the shift?  Most of these power hitters are average runners at best but I think they could help the team and themselves more if they learned how to bunt.

I just don’t understand why players who are shifted against will not change their approach at the plate. Pitchers learn the hitters weaknesses and make adjustments that force the hitter to make adjustments. It’s time for the hitters being shifted against to make adjustments to get defenses against them to play more honestly.”

I replied: “Interesting notes. I think you’re right when you suggest that sluggers don’t bunt more because they don’t run well. I also think that many of them figure the long ball is what got them to the show so the long ball is what they will continue to try to hit. And perhaps bunting skills are not something they have spent much time honing. I’m more likely to want to see them shorten up on their stroke and stop swinging for the fences. They don’t need to swing so hard, as strong as they are. I like it when Rizzo chokes up when he has two strikes on him. Maybe he should choke up as soon as he steps into the box. However, he seems to hit right into the shift often anyway.”

To which our reader replied: “Your example of Rizzo was my point exactly. They are giving him the whole left side of the infield to either bunt or hit to the opposite field, yet he hits right into the shift … If [hitters] start to be successful at going the opposite way or bunting the defense will have to adjust or allow the hitter to get on via the bunt. They pay these guys for home runs but as I pointed out that happens 5% of the time approximately.  I think the odds are much greater [for] getting on base via a bunt when shifted against.  These guys are athletes and can bunt if they want but some have big egos.  Baez is a dead pull hitter and rolls over on a lot of balls on the outside part of the plate or Ks because he stands off the plate.  Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why they are pitching players a certain way because they are too bull-headed to adjust.”

Defensive shifts are also a problem for those of us who keep score at the ballpark. If they move the shortstop to the right, between the second baseman and first baseman, and he fields a grounder and throws the batter out, is it a 4-3 or a 6-3? And if the batter grounds to short, where the third baseman is playing, is it a 5-3 or a 6-3? What’s more important for scoring, who fields it or where the ball was hit? This is a question each scorer must answer in his or her own heart.

Any thoughts? Comment below, or feel free to email me at fesullivan@comcast.net.
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  • I've been advocating that guys like Rizzo and Schwarber bunt or show bunt maybe once per game. That move might make the shift a bit less drastic. It might also help Heyward overcome some of his struggles.

  • In reply to willycat:

    Thanks! Could work!

  • In reply to willycat:

    If they are successful in those attempts to bunt and get good at it I believe they will cause the defense to play them more honest. If they can't demonstrate they can get on with the bunt they won't move out of the shift IMO.

  • In reply to Greg:

    Right! So they need to adjust their hitting strategy, assuming they have one, to the situation.

  • Am I being obvious if I suggest major league hitters just learn how to hit to the opposite field?!

  • They're getting paid enough, aren't they? Anyway, your frustration is shared by most of us, especially after watching the Cubs in the 2017 playoffs.

  • The pitchers are throwing inside so they hit into how the defense shifts. It's easier to bunt a inside pitch to the opposite side of the field then it is for a hitter to pull his hands inside and wait for the ball to travel deeper in the hitting zone to promote slashing a pitch the opposite direction. When the pitcher makes a mistake with location outside the hitter can drive the ball to the opposite field. Many of these hitters are looking middle in to pull and don't pull the trigger on the outside corner pitch. Once the hitter gets behind in the pitch count they continue to bury the ball inside which causes them to hit into the shift and not bunt with two strikes. They must either look to drive the outside pitch early in the count or bunt.

  • Email from Mike in Chicago:

    Clearly, improving bunting skills increases one's options. However, the skill that really changes things is slashing the ball against the shift, usually good for a double due to the outfield positioning.

  • From Pat in Oregon:

    Is it all that hard to learn to hit to the opposite field? Good hitters should be able to hit it anywhere and negate the shift. But what do I know?

  • From SoA:

    Learn how to hit better.

  • From Peter in the UK:

    the bunt was the first thing that came to mind.
    analytics around the shift is killing hitters. it really works and must be really frustrating to these guys hitting lasers up the middle, to be caught by the 2nd baseman. or to be thrown out from shallow right field by the 3rd baseman.

    if a left handed hitter can bunt the ball to the right of the pitcher and keep it on the grass or even with the bag, he can limp to first.

  • Follow up from the fan who started the conversation:

    They say the definition of insanity is continuing to the do same things and expecting different results. I know if I was being shifted against, depending on the inning and circumstances I would take advantage of what the defense was giving me. Then it would be up to the defense to determine if they want to continuing to defense me the same way and expecting different results.

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