Is Bunting Still Worth it in Major League Baseball?

English for Entrepreneurs: The Senior Paper of Dante Schorge, Brookline (MA) High School, Class of 2019

A note from Bill Chuck: Sometimes you have the opportunity to play the long game. One of the things I wanted to do in bringing back Billy-Ball.com is give voice to talented writers who may not have a forum to be heard. Now I know, Billy-Ball.com does not attract a lot of readers, but maybe one person will read something on the site that will be an inspiration to do something terrific. Or maybe, just by posting a piece on an established site, a high schooler will get the professional opportunity that I never received.

Dante Schorge wrote this paper for his class with Ms. Stevens & Mr. Fischer. Mr. Fischer was my daughter’s English teacher at Brookline HS and now she’s a really good writer for NBCNews.com. He was an inspiration then to Elizabeth and continues to be to this day. And for me too.

Mr. Fischer asked me to read this paper and it was a privilege to do it and since Dante did a really good job, it’s my privilege to share it with you. And as for my the long game? Someday in the future, perhaps someone will ask the successful Dante Schorge for a chance and hopefully he will remember this. Hey, for all I know if I stick with this long enough, maybe Dante will give me a job.

I hope you enjoy the paper and, most of all, appreciate the work that went into it.

Is Bunting Still Worth it in Major League Baseball?

Baseball has always been an integral part of American culture since its beginnings in the early 1800s. Dozens of baseball expressions have even become part of everyday American language. If people do something wrong, they have “dropped the ball,” but if they do it right every time, they are “batting a thousand.” At work, people try to be “team players,” but if they are a little strange, they are “out in left field.” If they are estimating something, they might give a “ballpark figure.” And when making important plans, people always try to “cover all the bases.” (Hardman, Lizabeth. “America’s Pastime—The Story of Baseball.” Baseball, Lucent Books, 2011, pp. 6-19. Science Behind Sports. Research in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX1738300006/MSIC?u=mlin_m_brookhs&sid=MSIC&xid=f6e4f5e6. Accessed 28 Mar. 2019.) While the game has had a lasting impact on Americans, the way the game has been played has drastically changed over the years. Major League Baseball (MLB) was officially created in 1903 with the American League champion, The Boston Americans, pitted against the National League champion, The Pittsburgh Pirates, in the first World Series. The first seventeen years (1903-1919) are commonly known as the “Dead Ball Era” in Major League Baseball. Games were low scoring, and strategies focused on singles, bunts, stealing bases, and other “small ball” methods.(Hardman, Lizabeth. “America’s Pastime—The Story of Baseball.”) It was during this “Dead Ball Era,” bunting reached its height in Major League Baseball.

The bunt was invented in the 1860s, and the folklore surrounding its origins have been widely debated. Even the name of the technique, bunting, has competing historical accounts. Did it evolve from early claims that players were using their bats to butt the ball forward? Or did the name derive from mocking comparisons to a tiny bird, a bunting? ( Leonard, Randy. “Baseball’s Long and Complicated Relationship With the Bunt.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 1 Oct. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/10/baseballs-long-and-complicated-relationship-with-the-bunt/380563/.) In the 1860s, any batted ball that initially hit the ground between the white foul lines was a fair-ball even if the ball went foul afterwards. Therefore less gifted players decided to use their flat bats (which were legal at the time), and swiped at pitches from odd angles to send the balls spinning into foul ground; when this technique was executed correctly, the result was a sure base hit. (Leonard, Randy. “Baseball’s Long and Complicated Relationship With the Bunt.”) However, bunting faced mixed reactions from fans and players. In 1873 The Boston Globe called bunting an acknowledgment of one’s “weakness at the bat,” and a few years later the Detroit Free Press called it a “babyish performance.” A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle disagreed: “[t]he object of the batsman is to reach first base… and in such a way that it cannot be fielded to first base in time to put him out, he earns his base by skilful, scientific hitting.” (Leonard, Randy. “Baseball’s Long and Complicated Relationship With the Bunt.” ) Players took notice of this, and bunting rates in baseball soared. The game had not yet caught up to advantages of the bunt in the 1870s, as players were able to to foul off a pitcher’s best pitches until the pitcher ended up throwing outside the strike zone four times for a walk.

However, by the late 1890s, rule changes had taken away most of the bunt’s quirky advantages and left the technique in its present-day state. The bunt was also getting a bad reputation among fans and more talented players, as President Williams Howard Taft publicly preferred players to “hit it out for all that is in them,” fans were proclaiming the technique as “feminine,” and other players felt like bunting was equivalent to cheating at the plate. (Littlefield, Bill. “Not Dead Yet: The Unpredictable History Of Baseball’s Bunt.” 90.9 Wbur, WBUR, 21 May 2016, www.wbur.org/onlyagame/2016/05/21/baseball-bunting-history-mlb-butler.) Finally in 1919, towards the end of the “Dead Ball Era,” cleaner baseballs and Babe Ruth changed the game forever. In 1920 Ray Chapman, of the Cleveland Indians, was hit in the head by a pitch and died the next day. Because of this, Major League Baseball instituted the rule that umpires must remove a ball from a game if it becomes dirty and hard to see; with the ball easier to detect, batters hit more home runs. (Hardman, Lizabeth. “America’s Pastime—The Story of Baseball.”) Babe Ruth also hit 29 home runs in 1919, 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921, and an all-time record 60 in 1927 (that lasted until 1961). Because hitting home runs was seen as more masculine, more exciting for fans, and more effective for winning games, the bunt started to die a slow death in Major League Baseball. Yet some modern-day players like Brett Butler (1981-1997) still used the bunt religiously: “I looked to bunt every time I got up… I was just a small guy. Little guy, didn’t have a whole lot of pop. For me, the goal was to get on base. I was a lead off guy, and, for me, the best way I could do that was to lay down a bunt.”(Littlefield, Bill. “Not Dead Yet: The Unpredictable History Of Baseball’s Bunt.”) Butler, who played in the majors from 1981 to 1997, took bunting seriously. Every morning during spring training, he would get to the field early and take 250 practice bunts. His strategy was effective; in 1992 Butler led Major League Baseball with 42 bunt base hits, with nearly a quarter of all of Butler’s hits that season being bunts. (Littlefield, Bill. “Not Dead Yet: The Unpredictable History Of Baseball’s Bunt.”) Today, in the 2010s, bunting rates are still decreasing with newly developed stats from sabermetrics, the obsession over the home run, and players are practicing the technique less and less. Yet, there might be new hope for the bunt; with new and radical defensive shifts leaving holes wide open in the infield, is bunting worth it again in Major League Baseball?

Bill James, the best known baseball analyst in the world, is a baseball writer, baseball historian, and invented the term “sabermetrics” as the study of advanced baseball statistics. Hired by the Boston Red Sox to be a Senior Advisor of Baseball Operations in 2002, and named to Time’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2006, Bill James revolutionized how people would look at spots. James wrote annual editions of The Baseball Abstract from 1977 to 1988, and he invented statistics like Runs Created, Pythagorean Winning Percentage, Major-League Equivalencies, Win Shares, and many more. (Neyer, Rob. “Sabermetrics.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Aug. 2017, www.britannica.com/sports/sabermetrics#ref1182350.) He has also written books, The Baseball Book, The Player Ratings Book, The Bill James Handbook, and his findings spurred the iconic movement of “Moneyball” in Major League Baseball. ( Neyer, Rob. “Sabermetrics.”) However, even the famous Bill James does not have a consistent opinion on the practicality of the bunt in baseball. Calling bunting “a waste of time” and, in 2011, breaking down the technique as, “the only play in baseball that both sides applaud… one team applauds because they get an out, and the other team applauds because they get a base. So what does that tell you? Nobody’s really winning here.” ( Conan, Neil. “The Man Behind The ‘Moneyball’ Sabermetrics .” NPR, NPR Inc. , 26 Sept. 2011, .npr.org/2011/09/26/140813409/the-man-behind-the-moneyball-sabermetrics. Accessed 2 Apr. 2019.) Yet in 2014, he admitted that he was “no longer convinced that the sacrifice bunt is a poor percentage play.” (Greenberg, Neil. “Analytics Killed the Bunt. A New Data-Driven Strategy Could Bring It Back to Life.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 10 July 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/fancy-stats/wp/2018/07/10/analytics-killed-the-bunt-now-a-new-data-driven-strategy-could-bring-it-back-to-life/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.b14215ab41f9.) Since baseball can be analyzed by all 30 MLB teams in the modern age of baseball sabermetrics, when the sport’s most prolific analyst cannot come up with a definite answer for the functionality for the bunt it is important to note.

Zachary Rymer, who has been Bleacher Report’s MLB Lead Writer for 7 years, has a  strong opinion on the bunt. He argues that a team’s run expectancy (probability of a run scored) is always higher with a man on first base with no outs rather than a man on second base with one out. Rymer claims, “A bunt should be put down before a hitter has the count in his favor, otherwise he risks giving up on a potential walk… bunting is counterintuitive. Bunts offer pitchers potentially easy outs, and they do them the favor of conserving their ammunition.” (Rymer, Zachary D. “Explaining Why the Bunt Is Foolish in Today’s MLB.” Bleacher Report, Bleacher Report, 3 Oct. 2017, bleacherreport.com/articles/1639658-explaining-why-the-bunt-is-foolish-in-todays-mlb.) He also points out that today’s hitters are much more powerful and “why settle for a bunt when a homer could be in the cards?” He also declares that in today’s MLB, with so many home runs, any one-run deficits can be easily overcome with another home run. Rymer finishes his case by asserting that since strikeouts are also rising in today’s game, with pitchers throwing harder and becoming more dominant, that the probabilities of laying down a successful sacrifice bunt and then getting an RBI base hit are much lower than just getting an RBI extra base hit.

Neil Greenberg, a sports analytics writer for the Washington Post the last 9 years, has an optimistic take on the bunt. He notes, “The number of defensive shifts increased nearly 900 percent from 2010 to 2017, expanding from 3,323 to 33,218,” and that this increase in infield shifts has left open more bunting holes than ever before. (Greenberg, Neil. “Analytics Killed the Bunt. A New Data-Driven Strategy Could Bring It Back to Life.”) With the increase in shifts, Greenberg argues that is seems so simple to just hit a ground ball where the fielders aren’t located. However, as MLB player Matt Carpenter described, “Guys can’t hit a ground ball when all they have to do is hit a ground ball to score a run.” Yet when hitting the ground ball against the shift fails, bunting is an easier option. Greenberg wraps up his case by citing recent bunting statistics against the shift; he found that hitters bunted successfully against the shift 73% of the time in 2015, and that through the first four months of the 2018 season hitters bunted successfully against the shift 76% of the time. Therefore Greenberg reasons, “So, if used selectively, as James advocated in 2014, the bunt could again become a valuable weapon against the shift.” (Greenberg, Neil. “Analytics Killed the Bunt. A New Data-Driven Strategy Could Bring It Back to Life.”)

While I agree with the arguments and statistics that Zachary Rymer and Neil Greenberg presented, I am still not personally convinced whether the bunt should be dying a rightful death or if it is overdue for a Major League comeback. I do agree that rising home run and strikeout rates in the MLB are unavoidable because of the way players approach the game is changing. Yet with more access to any type of baseball statistic imaginable, teams are able to quantitatively evaluate what decisions they might be making. Statisticians say “numbers never lie,” and this strategy of baseball decision making has been demonstrated; Billy Beane led the Oakland Athletics to an incredible 103 wins using a sabermetric approach to field a lineup with a limited budget called “Moneyball.” After Beane’s famous 2002 season, every Major League Baseball team started to employ sabermetric analysts to help them make every decision on and off the field. However, it seems that sabermetric analytics used by Major League teams also comes down the hardest on bunts, especially the sacrifice; since 1992, the influence of sabermetrics has caused the frequency of the sacrifice bunt to drop almost 40%. So I will be looking for an answer to this question through statistics and an evaluation of potential situations where the bunt should and can still be used in Major League Baseball. I agree with Randy Leonard, a seasoned data reporter who has written for the New York Times, WSJ.com, and TheAtlantic.com, who says of the bunt in today’s game, “Its continued presence in baseball reflects a tension between art and science, between playing the numbers and playing by feel. Players and managers have to choose a side. In the regular season they tend to defer to the numbers. In October, they often favor the feel.” (Leonard, Randy. “Baseball’s Long and Complicated Relationship With the Bunt.”) I find it interesting that MLB teams will bunt more often in the postseason, that they are using the technique more in the most important games of the season rather than casual regular season games. I believe that tendency proves that the bunt is not “useless” and “dying” but rather lurking in disguise as an effective approach to manufacturing runs.

Yet as Jeff Sullivan notes, a baseball analytics writer and sabermetrics analyst for SBNation, Fangraphs, and the Tampa Bay Rays, laying down a bunt is not as easy as it seems. Through his own data analysis of bunts from 2008-2013 (36,000 total bunts), he discovered that pitchers successfully bunt the ball in fair territory 49.9% of the time, while non-pitchers bunt the ball in fair territory at a 49.6% clip. (Sullivan, Jeff. “The Truth About Bunting.” FanGraphs Baseball, FanGraphs Inc, 20 Mar. 2014, blogs.fangraphs.com/the-truth-about-bunting/.) I agree with his evaluation of this data, that it can be hard to effectively use a sacrifice bunt or a bunt for a hit in a game when there is only about a 50% chance the bunt will actually be playable. What I find a little more alarming is that these percentages do not count failed bunts for hits or sacrifice bunts that do not move runners over that are bunted fair, meaning that the actual success rate of the bunt completing what it was called on to do is much lower than 50% when a player squares. (Sullivan, Jeff. “The Truth About Bunting.”) Sullivan’s analysis of the bunt adds another dimension to the strategy of calling for and trying to lay down a bunt; if bunting the ball fair is like flipping a coin, then teams and players must consider bunting much more cautiously.

I will be using Baseball-Reference (https://www.baseball-reference.com/) and FanGraphs (https://www.fangraphs.com/) for my own data analysis to answer the question: is trying to bunt still worth it in Major League Baseball? First I looked into whether or not trying to bunt for hits is still worth it in today’s game. FanGraphs evaluates the success rate of a bunt for hit as the total number of successful bunts for hits divided by the total number of bunts, including sacrifice attempts. I find this to be a problem for discovering the true success rate of bunts for hits in the MLB today because sacrifice bunts were intended to lead to outs and should not be included in the true bunt for hit success rate formula. Therefore in my findings of bunt for hit success rate (BUH%), I will not be using the BUH% = (BUH/BU)*100% formula but instead BUH% = (BUH/(BU-SH)*100% with BUH = number of total successful bunt for hits, BU = number of total bunts, and SH = number of successful sacrifice bunts.

Through the past ten full seasons of Major League Baseball (2009-2018) the number of successful bunts for hits (BUH) has decreased from 678 to 441, with a peak of 750 BUH in 2011; this is a 34.96% decrease in BUH over those ten seasons. My edited BUH% calculations show that through years 2009-2017, the BUH% stayed fairly constant from year to year with a maximum of BUH% = 48.64% in 2011 and a minimum of BUH% = 46.37% in 2009. However, in 2018 my revised BUH% = 39.73%, which was 8.84% lower than 2017’s BUH%. This drastic decrease in BUH% in 2018 could be an outlier of the trend, or it could be a sign that BUH are going to be less and less successful. 2018 also saw an all-time low in BUH for MLB history with only 441, and the last four complete MLB seasons (2015-2018) are ranked the four lowest in BUH in MLB history in that order. I believe that this decrease in BUH and BUH% is not random. I think these decreases have been caused by the increasing number of power hitters, increasing strikeouts, and more sabermetric-reliant coaching. I also find it interesting that through 2009-2018, National League position players are not bunting for hits any more often than American League position players. American League position players in total are averaging only 2.9 BUH more than National League position players over those ten years. Even though bunting through the shift seems like a revolutionary new way to reenergize the bunt for hit, a subpar 39.73% BUH% in 2018 when the MLB experienced an all-time high of defensive shifts (31,906) and players only having a 50% chance of laying the bunt down in the first place is enough for me to believe the bunt for hit may be dying a rightful death.

I also looked into the effectiveness of sacrifice bunts (SH) and whether or not giving up an out to move a runner over is still worth it in today’s MLB. Again it is interesting to note that the number of sacrifice bunts (SH) has been decreasing over time since the MLB’s formation in 1903. The three years with the lowest number of SH are 2018, 2017, and 2016 in that order with 823, 925, and 1025 SH respectively. The MLB is experiencing a decrease of 100 SH a year over the past three years resulting in a 9.76% decrease in SH from 2016 to 2017, and a 11.03% decrease in SH from 2017 to 2018. However, just because teams are bunting less does not mean that these SH are not effective for scoring runs in games. For example, in 2018 the Toronto Blue Jays sacrifice bunted for a grand total of 5 times and scored a run resulted from the sacrifice bunt just once, for a sacrifice bunt worth it rate of 20%. I also tested the number of runs scored by a team in a season versus the number of sacrifice hits they had to see if the two variables had any correlation. I discovered a very weak correlation between the two variables, R2 = .0204 for the 2018 season, but the trend almost indicated that teams who sacrifice bunt more, may score fewer runs. Now this may be because teams who are worse may need to sacrifice bunt more to make up for the run differences, but yet again the Blue Jays only sacrifice bunted 5 times in 2018 and had a mere 73 wins.

I also found it interesting that in 2018, National League teams sacrifice bunted 564 times out of the total 823, which was 68.53% of all SH in 2018. I believe this drastic difference is due to the National League’s absence of the designated hitter (DH). Since pitchers are usually weaker hitters, when placed in the lineup they are more likely to be told to sacrifice bunt much more often than position players. I also discovered that 411 of the 823 sacrifice bunts in 2018 were laid down by pitchers, which was 49.94% of all SH. This means that the reason the National League sacrifice bunts much more than the American League is because the National League provides pitchers with many more plate appearance opportunities which are often turned into sacrifice bunts. Surprisingly, since only 13 of those pitcher bunts were by American League pitchers playing in interleague games, American League position players actually out-sacrifice bunted National League position players 246 to 166. I find this intriguing because the National League is usually heralded as the more “strategic” league because of a lack of the designated hitter; however, it seems that American League position players are told to give up an at bat to move a runner over much more often than National League position players.

To get an estimate of the worth it rate of sacrifice bunts in the 2018 MLB season, I am going to construct a 90% confidence interval for the proportion of sacrifice bunts that result in a run scoring in the same inning after the bunt and not including home runs, for a “worth it rate.” I am not including runs scored before the sacrifice because the bunt has nothing to do with what happened before it. Also, I am not calling a home run after the bunt a “success” because sacrifice bunting before a home run has no bearings on whether or not the runner was successfully moved over for the cost of an out. I randomly sampled 82 out of the 823 total 2018 MLB regular season bunts, making sure I met the 10% Condition (a random sample cannot exceed 10% of the population in order to construct a 1-proportion confidence interval). Through this sample, I am 90% confident that the true sacrifice bunt worth it rate is between 39.18% and 60.82%. My sample worth it rate was 41/82 = 50%, suggesting that sacrifice bunts have a 50% chance of being “worth it” in all situations. More specifically, I discovered that 46.34% of pitcher sacrifice bunts were “worth it” while 53.66% of position player sacrifice bunts were “worth it.” Yet, both of these WIR’s (Worth It Rate) have margin of errors of 12.81% so no concrete conclusions about whether pitchers or position players have higher WIR on sacrifice bunts can be drawn. The WIR for situations with 0 outs was 57.89% with a margin of error of 10.76%, while the WIR for situations with 1 out was 32% with a margin of error of 15.35%, meaning that we can infer that the WIR is probably higher for situations with 0 outs than 1 out. Finally, the WIR for situations with a lead runner on third base was 80% with a margin of error of 20.81%, meaning that we are 90% confident that a sacrifice bunt when the lead runner is on third base will have a WIR of at least 59.19%. The WIR for situations with a lead runner on second base was 59.26% with a margin of error of 15.55%, and the WIR for situations with a lead runner on first base was 37.78% with a margin of error of 11.89%. Based on my findings, I would only recommend sacrifice bunting with 0 outs unless the lead runner was on third or second base. I would also advise against sacrifice bunting with 1 out unless the batter’s on base percentage (OBP) was less than the (WIR – Margin of Error) of the situation, because then the team would have a higher chance of scoring with a sacrifice bunt than if the batter had gotten on base.

In conclusion, I believe sacrifice bunting is still effective when used and applied in the right situations: sacrifice bunting with a man on first with 1 out acts as a rally killer, while sacrifice bunting with a man on second or third with 0 outs can spark a rally and has a higher chance of scoring a run in that inning. There is a lot of grey area when deciding whether or not to sacrifice bunt, but MLB teams should evaluate the batter’s chances of getting on base (OBP) against the WIR – Margin of Error of the specific situation to decide whether or not sacrifice bunting will have the highest chance of scoring a run later in that inning.