Daulton Varsho’s Secret Superpower

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Daulton Varsho is good in a few very obvious ways. He’s lightning quick, gets great jumps in the outfield, and plays catcher when he’s not in center or right. He swatted 27 homers last year, and his underlying power metrics suggest that he’ll be able to hit 20-30 a season with some regularity. A plus center fielder who also plays catcher and hits for power? That’s a loud-tool kind of player, the sort who hits you over the head with how good they are.

That’s all true, but I’m intrigued by another one of Varsho’s skills. He might be a power hitter, but he’s also a volume bunter. He ended a plate appearance with a bunt 14 times in 2022, 14th-most in baseball. The guys ahead of him on this list are mostly singles hitters; Victor Robles and Geraldo Perdomo led the pack, for example. No one ahead of him on the list hit 20 homers; for someone with his level of pop, he’s a huge bunting enthusiast.

Strangely, he was particularly fond of bunting with the bases empty last year. That runs counter to conventional baseball wisdom, but also to all baseball wisdom. One of the best reasons to bunt is that even a failure can help score runs. If you try to bunt for a single with a man on first, plenty of your failures will still put a runner in scoring position. If you try a bunt and fail with no one on, it’s an out like any other.

Don’t tell Varsho that, though. Of his 14 bunts last year, 10 came with the bases empty. That was tied for second in the majors, behind only Tony Kemp’s 13. And while I just told you that bunts with the bases empty are less valuable in expectation than bunts with runners on, that wasn’t true in Varsho’s case. He reached base on all but one of his attempts, a cool .900 batting average. In each of these cases, he was only bunting because he thought he’d reach base. There was no ancillary consideration of baserunner advancement, no breakeven rate between a sacrifice and a hit. He simply thought he’d reach base and was mostly correct, which is why I think it makes sense to consider these bases-empty bunts separately from bunts that are made with runner advancement in mind.

My immediate reaction: maybe he was just bunting to beat the shift. Plenty of lefty hitters with pull-happy tendencies bunt as a way of keeping the defense honest, or at least punishing them for leaving no one near third base. Brandon Belt, Varsho’s new teammate, is one of the best in the game at it. Belt isn’t even fast; it makes sense that Varsho would try the same thing more frequently.

But that’s not what happened. Here’s a representative Varsho bunt single from last year:

The defense is shaded but not fully shifted. No one’s playing particularly far back. And Varsho isn’t even aiming at third base; he’s going for the gap between first and second, where the first baseman is forced to range to make a play and Varsho’s speed makes covering the base difficult. Of the 10 bases-empty bunts that he attempted in 2022, eight went towards first base. It wasn’t even some fluke of shift-related positioning; only four of those 10 bunts came with three infielders on the right side of the infield.

These bunts aren’t reactions to the defense, in other words. For comparison’s sake, Belt has attempted 37 bunts since Statcast began tracking batted balls in 2015. Thirty-six of those have come against the shift. Varsho’s bunting is even relatively pitcher-agnostic; those 10 bunt attempts came against six lefties and four righties. He isn’t using it exclusively as a bail-out when facing a tough lefty. It’s just another tool he has for getting on base. Sure, maybe he can’t drop down a bunt every time, but it’s obviously something he’s thinking about when he comes to the plate.

He’s getting better at it, too: after popping up two of the four bunts he attempted in 2020, he’s singled on 15 of his 16 bases-empty bunt attempts over the past two years. I’m not ready to say he’ll keep succeeding at that rate, because almost no one succeeds at that rate, but he’s clearly quite accomplished at the tactic. If you’re trying to project Varsho’s performance in Toronto, you should probably add in a fair number of bunt attempts, and count on plenty of them succeeding.

That brings me to something I noticed when researching these bunts: many of the one-number expected statistics that are so commonplace in baseball analysis these days don’t know what to do with Varsho’s bunts. Let’s use the bases-empty bunts as an example, because it’s easy to work out their value. There are no baserunners to advance or anything like that; they’re either a single or an out. As I mentioned above, he’s 15-for-16 in the past two years, which means 15 singles and only one out.

I don’t think it makes sense to treat them exactly like a single when it comes to linear-weights run value, because baserunner advancement is a big part of singles and clearly not happening in these situations. But even if you treat them like a walk, those 16 plate appearances have been tremendously valuable for Varsho’s team. He’s running a .647 wOBA and .934 OBP when he bunts with the bases empty. That’s a heck of a batting line, and would be excellent even if he were less efficient.

One way of thinking about it: per Statcast, Varsho has been worth 6.4 runs above average as a hitter in his major league career. Of that, 1.3 runs have come from bases-empty bunts. In 2% of his career plate appearances, he’s produced 20% of his aggregate value over average, and he’s doing it not with homers but with bunts. Barrel rate, launch angle, and hard-hit percentage can’t approximate this value; they don’t even consider it.

Another statistic that doesn’t handle bunts well: xwOBA. I think this is by design; the xwOBA formula is elegant and simple, caring only about vertical launch angle and exit velocity. Those assumptions work fairly well because hitters mostly don’t control their spray angle, also known as horizontal launch angle. They hit the ball somewhere, there either is or isn’t a defender there, and if you bucket up hundreds of those batted balls, xwOBA will do a good job of figuring out how much production you should expect for a given combination of speed and launch angle.

You can throw that right out the window when you’re thinking about bunts. Bunts are aimed in a way that average batted balls can’t be. They take the defense into account; bunting to draw the first baseman off the line depends greatly on where that first baseman is playing, and where the rest of the infield is as well. Trying to create a spray- and defender-agnostic estimate of a bunt’s value would never work, and I’d venture to say that it was never supposed to work. xwOBA is a great blunt-force tool, but it’s pretty clearly not meant to value something like a push bunt.

Still, Varsho’s bunts feed in to his xwOBA, and as you might expect, xwOBA hates bunt attempts. They’re grounders hit at slow speed, after all. The average batted ball that shares EV/LA characteristics with a bunt is something like a chopper back to the pitcher. Those 16 bases-empty bunts that Varsho has attempted in the past two years have an xwOBA of .207, a far cry from the adjusted .647 value I came up with above.

Put another way, Varsho has a .307 xwOBA over the past two years, but if you plugged in my .647 wOBA for those bunt attempts instead of the numbers xwOBA spits out for them, he’d have a .314 xwOBA. That’s a large difference for bunt attempts alone; it’s roughly the difference between a 38th-percentile xwOBA and a 50th-percentile one. In other words, Varsho is a better hitter than he gets credit for because one of the high-value things he does gets treated as low-value by a statistic that people like to look at.

If I were forecasting Varsho’s offensive value in 2023, I’d include his ability to produce high-certainty singles in my estimate. I think it’s likely that both ZiPS and Steamer are doing some version of that; despite his middling Statcast numbers, they both expect him to improve on his career line this year. It’s hard to post a .269 BABIP while reaching base on so many bunt attempts; ZiPS in particular thinks he’ll be near average in that category, and I tend to agree.

That doesn’t mean Varsho is a surefire superstar. There are still plenty of scary parts of his profile. If his defensive value tumbles back to earth (Statcast thinks he was the most valuable outfield defender in the game last year), his bat will need to improve if he wants to post All-Star numbers again. But don’t take a single look at Varsho’s lollipop graph and write him off as a one-hit wonder. He has a tried-and-true way of getting on base that you can’t find on that graph. Just ask Freddie Freeman, an all-world defender and helpless Varsho victim:

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

I am as big a TTO fan as there is — the pitcher/batter matchup is by far the most interesting part of the game to me. But I can’t help but have a soft spot for non-sac bunts. He clearly can read a defense and maximize his chances at success.

Maybe it’s something with how the P in question fields? If they have an extreme fall-off or are just kinda bad at it, that seems like it’d give you a lot more room for error on this type of play, as it’d require the 1B to intervene.