College World Series Teams Love Bunting

Over the last couple of weeks, ESPN has been broadcasting NCAA baseball, from the regional championships leading up to the currently-airing College World Series. There’s something that draws me to lower level baseball. Maybe it’s how bad I am at the game. Maybe it’s the fact that clutch actually might exist at lower levels. Maybe it’s the pure uncertainty — these college players are not the machines we watch at the MLB level. They make mistakes, and games and even seasons can turn on them.

But then there’s the bunts. So many bunts. I went back and took a look at the game logs for the first ten games of the College World Series to see just how many times teams tried to bunt. Keep in mind that this doesn’t even account for times when a player attempted to bunt but swung away later in the at-bat, and I also may have missed a few failed sacrifices which were classified as fielder’s choices, but I think the point gets across:

Game 1: VAN-UNC
Top 1st, Single
Top 3rd, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Game 2: TEX-FLA
Top 3rd, Successful sacrifice, batter safe
Bot 8th, Foul bunt strikeout
Game 3: CAL-UVA
Bot 4th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Bot 7th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Bot 8th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Game 4: TAMU-SCAR
Top 1st, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Top 6th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Bot 2nd, Single
Top 4th, Foul out
Game 5: UNC-TEX
Bot 4th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Top 9th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Game 6: Vanderbilt-Florida
None
Game 7: California-Texas A&M
Top 5th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Top 7th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Bot 3rd, Failed bunt for hit
Game 8: SCAR-UVA
Top 4th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Top 5th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Top 8th, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Top 2nd, Third out
Game 9: VAN-UNC
None
Game 10: UVA-CAL
Top 3rd, Successful sacrifice, batter safe
Top 3rd, Successful sacrifice, batter out
Top 8th, Successful sacrifice, batter out

That’s a whopping 23 bunts in only 10 games. For reference, let’s look at the American League this season, as the NCAA rules use the DH as well. According to Baseball-Reference, the American League has seen 590 bunts in 522 games, about 1.13 per game, basically half the rate NCAA managers (or players) are opting for the bunt.

I feel pretty confident in declaring that NCAA teams overuse the bunt. Only five of these 23 bunt attempts have resulted in a runner reaching safely. In watching these games, the defenses play up for the bunt and are well prepared for well-executed sacrifice bunts with runners on base. The successes seem to come most often without runners on base, when the defense is playing back.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Those who have read The Book recall the discussion of bunts in game theory, a topic MGL touched on again in the 2009 playoffs. With the bunt such a widely-used tool at the college level, defenses are typically playing up to field the bunts, meaning teams should be using the tactic less. However, managers don’t seem to have adapted.

I, for one, will be very interested to see how this plays out in the last few games of the College World Series. We are at most four games from the championship series, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if a bunt or two somehow play a large role in deciding the winner.

We hoped you liked reading College World Series Teams Love Bunting by Jack Moore!

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Dan in Philly
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Dan in Philly

To my (unresearched) understanding, runs are more scarce in the college game than in MLB, particularly in the playoffs, where you’ll be seeing a lot of guys who will be soon in the majors. In low run scoring environments like that, bunting, productive outs, etc., make more strategic sense than in high run environments

Max
Guest
Max

This should be even more pronounced with the new bats this year. What does the bunting data look like from last year’s CWS?

Bigmouth
Guest

Wow… very interesting observation. I assumed it was the reverse of what you describe (i.e., I thought there would be more run scoring in college) but admittedly do not follow college baseball as closely as I used to.

Eric B
Guest
Eric B

it’s also possible that you have the causal arrow backwards. maybe scoring is low becasue they bunt so damned much.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb

College games have a higher run scoring environment than MLB does. There are more runs scored in a college game, even the College World Series, than in MLB. Just based on that, there should be fewer bunts, not more.

Dan in Philly
Guest
Dan in Philly

I don’t know, the games I have watched seem to jibe with what goe says below.