Dropping One Down Before Hitting a Homer

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hanging out with most of the rest of the FanGraphs crew in Arizona. As part of our annual festivities, we make sure to check out a couple spring training games, in part for fun and in part out of sensed obligation. This year we hauled ourselves to the new Cubs Park and also to Salt River Fields. During an inning break at the former, the scoreboard showed a video segment with Len Kasper who explained the concept of replacement level. But I want to talk a bit about the latter: At Salt River Fields, on Saturday, we watched some of the Angels take on some of the Rockies.

Mike Trout hit a super-long home run to dead-center. That’s the thing that stood out the most. The thing that stood out the second-most, though, was an at bat that featured Matt Long. I’d never heard of Matt Long before, and at the time of the at bat, I didn’t know his first name. He wasn’t even supposed to be playing — he was inserted in place of Brennan Boesch, who had earlier been ejected for what looked like nothing. Long would hit three times, but it was his first plate appearance that was by far the most intriguing. And not simply because it wasn’t supposed to happen.

For one thing, Long actually batted in the top of the fourth, kind of. But with two down, Chris Iannetta was caught stealing, so Long had a chance to bat again in the fifth. In the top of the fifth, Long tried to bunt his way on:


That didn’t work. With two strikes, Long was almost punched out looking:


Then Long swung and very nearly doubled:


Instead, it was just a longer strike. In a sense, Long was so unlucky! But actually it turns out he was lucky, because:


Matt Long wasn’t supposed to play. In his first at bat, he almost bunted, then he almost struck out, then he almost doubled, then he homered against a decent major-league pitcher. I’m looking at Long’s numbers. Career minor-league OBP of .370. More than 100 steals. Exactly 50 triples and exactly 50 homers. Interesting profile. I know who Matt Long is now.

I didn’t think a lot about the at bat the rest of the game, but it managed to creep its way back into my consciousness. In the days that followed, I cared less about the called ball, and less about the long foul. Long hit a home run a short while after he tried to drop down a bunt. It seemed to me that was pretty unusual. It seemed to me that was something I could research using PITCHf/x data.

See, PITCHf/x keeps track of foul bunts and missed bunts, going back to 2008. So I was confronted by a basic question: What’s the recent history of guys homering in at bats in which they also tried to bunt? This is probably the first FanGraphs post inspired by Matt Long. This might be the first post inspired by Matt Long anywhere, ever. But the whole point of spring training for guys like Long is to make people notice, and here we are.

Note that this misses home runs in at bats in which the hitter showed bunt and pulled back. This is about home runs in at bats in which the hitter committed to trying to drop one down. This is about home runs in at bats in which the hitter did a bunt wrong. We have six years of data, stretching back to 2008. Counting only the regular season and the playoffs, I was able to find 159 instances, or about 27 a year. Because I’m only counting meaningful baseball, Matt Long’s homer doesn’t qualify, but it’s not like Long can complain about going unmentioned.

I found 23 players who have done this exactly twice. Here are the players to have done it three times:

Here are the players to have done it four times:

Here’s the player to have done it five times:

And the guy to have done it six times:

Tulo pulled it off twice in 2009. He’s done it once a year since. By this measure, in the past six seasons, Troy Tulowitzki is the king of something he’s probably not thought about. I’ll note the following inside-the-park home runs, which I didn’t exclude:

Now, there’s another level to this. There have been 159 instances in which a batter homered after failing at a bunt. And out of those, there have been seven instances in which a batter homered after trying and failing to bunt twice. Ryan Langerhans did it in 2008. Ben Zobrist did it 13 days later. Colby Rasmus did it in 2009. Michael Martinez did it in 2011. Allen Craig did it later in 2011. Two guys did it last year.

On July 6, the Astros played a strange game against the Rangers — in that the Astros beat the Rangers, despite playing on the road and despite facing Yu Darvish. In the top of the eighth, with the score 7-5 Houston, Jake Elmore batted against Tanner Scheppers with a man on first and no one out. The first pitch was a fastball, which Elmore bunted:


The second pitch was a fastball, which Elmore bunted:


The third pitch was a curveball that Elmore watched. The fourth pitch was a curveball that Elmore didn’t watch:


It was the first major-league home run of Elmore’s career. He returned to a dugout that was all full of smiles, even from the manager, because you’re forgiven for blowing the fundamentals if you hit a home run. Elmore probably can’t make a habit of this, but at least he started off on this foot.

Now fast-forward to October. On Oct. 7, the Dodgers hosted an National League Division Series game against the Braves, and it was in this game that the Braves were eliminated. It didn’t have to be that way — the Braves took a 3-2 lead into the bottom of the eighth, having survived a short-rest start from Clayton Kershaw and a full-rest start from Freddy Garcia. In the bottom of the eighth, Juan Uribe batted against David Carpenter with a man on second and no one out. The first pitch was a slider, which Uribe bunted:


The second pitch was a fastball, which Uribe bunted:


The third pitch was a fastball that Uribe watched. The fourth pitch was a slider that Uribe watched. The fifth pitch was a slider that Uribe didn’t watch:


In a flash, the Dodgers went ahead. And in a flash, the TV feed cut to the Atlanta bullpen.


Kenley Jansen slammed the door and the Braves were done. Uribe was the game’s biggest hero, after failing — twice — to do what many would consider to be incredibly simple. Of course, it’s not that simple, and I think that’ll be the subject of another post. But on the first two pitches of an important plate appearance, Juan Uribe screwed up the fundamentals. A few pitches later, he delivered one of the biggest hits of the Dodgers’ 2013 season. It isn’t hard to earn forgiveness for unwelcome mistakes. All you have to do is literally the very best thing.

Oftentimes, bunting is the wrong idea. But sometimes bunting is the right idea. In some of these instances, bunting might have been the right idea. Hitting a homer was even better. Usually it’s a good idea to hit a homer. I hope you were sitting down for that.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Would it be too much oversimplifying to say that pitches today have way more movement, on average, than pitches many years ago?

I mean, not that Uribe’s technique was impeccable, but those two pitches from Carpenter had late movement in opposite directions. This has to make it much more difficult to place a bunt.