Bunting is a relatively big talking point in baseball circles. Saberists continue to point to data that shows bunting does more harm than good except in very specific situations. Elsewhere, many have advocated bunting as a method of beating the shift. And of course, botched bunts are always a popular subject for post game rage.
Pirates fans have plenty to complain about when it comes to bunting. As outlined on this very site last year, Clint Hurdle and the Pirates are not very good at deciding when to bunt. As it turns out, the Pirates are also not very good at bunting in general.
In 2005, current Pirates Director of Baseball Systems Development, Dan Fox, wrote a piece on bunting in the Hardball Times. Among the many fascinating findings in the article, was research on how often sacrifice bunts were successful. Success meant that the play resulted in a sacrifice, a hit, a fielder’s choice-all safe, an error, or other rarer possibilities. Fielder’s choices, double plays, pop-ups, foul-outs, and strikeouts on bunt attempts were all considered failures.
By looking through play-by-play data, he found a league-wide success rate of 76.2%. So how well do the 2014 Pirates stack up? Using the same methodology as Fox, I found the team’s success rate to be just 52.9%. That’s 18 successes out of 34 attempts.
Jeff Sullivan from Fangraphs looked at bunting from a slightly different perspective earlier this year. His research was mostly focused on whether bunting would be a viable strategy for beating the shift. The theory was that getting a hit against the shift mostly just required a batter to bunt the ball at a target the size of roughly half of the infield. So he looked at how often batters were able to get a bunt attempt into fair territory.
Using pitch-by-pitch data, Jeff looked at all pitches where any bunt (sacrifice or not) attempt was a) put in play, b) fouled off, or c) missed for a strike. This method does leave out situations where the batter pulls back the bat and takes either a ball or called strike, but unfortunately that data just does not exist for those plays. What he found was that just bunting a ball fair was harder than you may have thought. The league-average “success” rate was only 49%. Remember, success does not mean a positive outcome, just that the ball was bunted into fair territory. Pitchers and non-pitchers showed practically no difference, as neither was able to bunt fairy even half of the time.
So how did Pittsburgh bunters do using this metric? Not very well at all. The club was only able to put 30.9% of pitches on which a bunt was attempted into play. Again, that’s using the same methodology as Sullivan, looking at 104 pitches worth of data in total. That’s a ridiculously anemic total. Here’s a breakdown of what happened when the Pirates attempted to bunt:
Unsurprisingly, no one has researched how much random variation are in these statistics, so we don’t know how much these numbers will regress, if at all. But we can be pretty confident the Pirates have assembled a roster that is very poor at bunting.
Stats current as of 6/6/14.