“I’ll be honest. I think pulling the ball is the best way to get hits,” Charlie Blackmon said before a game against the Athletics, as we went over the various changes in his hitting profile from year to year. Maybe that’s baseball 101, but going the opposite way has its prominent supporters.
In the age of the shift, though, is Blackmon’s assertion itself still so obvious? Pull the ball a ton and you’ll end up seeing more defenders where you want the ball to go. Unless you have a certain skill that has fallen out of favor in baseball.
Tony Blengino recommended shifting anyone that pulls more than five ground balls for every opposite-field ground ball. Blackmon’s pull ratio is exactly 5.0, or 21st-highest in the big leagues (out of 172 qualified hitters), and just above him are names that get shifted all the time: Anthony Rizzo (5.33) and Pedro Alvarez (5.62), for example.
In fact, there’s only one name that has pulled the ball on the ground more often than Charlie Blackmon that hasn’t been shifted ten times as often as Charlie Blackmon (14 times in the last three years). That name is Chris Coghlan.
Why would teams decide not to shift these two? The response is obvious but instructive. “I bunt. It’s kind of hard for them to completely shift,” says Blackmon. Coghlan has 31 bunt attempts in his career, roughly one for every twenty games, and though that’s not as prolific (one for every 12 games) or successful (41% for Blackmon to 29% for Coghlan), both players bunt more than anyone ahead of them on the grounder-pull list.
If you actually try to correlate bunt statistics with times shifted, one thing pops out: bunt attempts and times shifted are negatively correlated (.1268 r-squared, with a p value under .0001), but bunt-hit percentage is nowhere nearly as strongly correlated, even if you filter out the players with fewer plate appearances. So, in order to beat the shift, you don’t even need to be successful at bunting… you just have to try a decent amount.
Of course, speed statistics are decently correlated with bunt hit attempts — if you start with just the four-component speed score or even a raw stolen-base score, you can predict at least a third of the variance in bunt hit attempts — so it helps to be fast.
It’s also a little bit of the chicken and the egg thing. You bunt often because you’re fast, so you get used to bunting often, so you can beat the shift. You are successful bunting so you bunt more.
Could a bigger, slower guy start bunting and make the shifts go away? Hard to say. The only person who’s even attempted ten bunts since 2012 and still been shifted more than 100 times a season is Colby Rasmus, and he’s tried to bunt nine times in the last three years. He’s also been shifted 106 times this year compared to the 138 he saw last year, so it hasn’t been effective.
Once you get more into the volume bunters, up past 20 and 30 — where Coghlan and Blackmon live — there isn’t a single player that has been shifted more than twenty times. And so Blackmon is right to point out that the bunt is a great deterrent.
“If I pull the ball, I’m hitting it harder than if I’m hitting it the other way. And if you hit it in the middle of the field, those are all your best athletes,” he said about pulling the ball. “I want to hit it to the big slow guys on the corners.” And though the first part may need more data to be proven true — velocity wasn’t significantly related to fly-ball or ground-ball pull ratio — the second part seems to be effective. The league has a 156 wRC+ to the pull field, 117 to center, and 104 to the opposite field, so he’s right about that.
But pull too much, and you better bunt some or it’ll start to hurt. That 156 wRC+ to the pull field this year is the lowest we’ve seen since 2010, which is about when shifts began to take off.
Time to beef up the bunting portion of batting practice?
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.