Goldilocks and the Three Bunts

If you’ve read a lot of my work here, you probably know that I’m a huge fan of bunting. Some bunting, at least — I’m not talking about bone-headed sacrifices at the altar of small ball. There’s just something satisfying about a well-placed bunt, pushed past the pitcher and to an open space vacated by the defense. Bunts against the shift are a delight. Bunts not against the shift, where the hitter is simply better at bunting than the defense is at defending, are great too. This article is not about one of those bunts.

On Friday night, the Dodgers were locked in a tight battle. Runs had been hard to come by against opposing starter Ian Anderson, though Julio Urías was doing his part to keep the team in the game, surrendering only a solo home run through four innings. In the top of the fifth, Urías got a chance to help the team on the offensive end as well. With runners on first and third and the game tied after a close play at the plate, he stepped up to bat with one out in the inning.

Urías isn’t a bad hitter, at least as far as pitchers go. He sports a career line of .175/.188/.190, a fair sight better than the overall .124/.143/.159 line across baseball over the course of his career. Still, he’s an awful hitter, as far as major league hitters go. Dave Roberts called for a bunt.

This was a big spot for the Dodgers. A successful safety squeeze — a reasonable call with the speedy Gavin Lux on third — would put them ahead in the game. A strikeout, on the other hand, would give Anderson an easy escape, a chance to bring his team back to the plate in a tie game. Mookie Betts lurked on deck, so it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park even if he retired Urías without incident, but still: the outcome of this bunt could prove pivotal.

Theories differ on the best pitch to bunt against. “Something you can handle” is a solid answer, though hardly sufficient. A fastball over the middle of the plate might be the best answer, but that’s the best pitch to hit overall, not exactly what I mean. Whatever you think the best pitch to bunt at is, though, it probably isn’t this:

Let’s not beat around the bush: that was a terrible bunt attempt. What in the world was he doing there?? That pitch was nearly five feet off the ground — 4.71 per Statcast, to be precise. That’s more than a foot higher than the top of the strike zone. This hardly looks like a still image of someone playing baseball:

How bad was Urías’s decision to offer at that pitch? That’s the highest pitch that anyone has made a bunt attempt on this year, period. You’d have to go back to 2016 to find a higher pitch that someone tried to bunt. Weirdly, the only other attempt to come close this year was when Ildemaro Vargas tried to bunt off of Anderson and ended up looking just as silly:

With that foul bunt, Anderson was in the driver’s seat. Coax one more foul bunt or poorly-advised take, and he could spend the rest of the at-bat pumping high fastballs that Urías could hardly hope to handle. That was a big break for him, because let’s be honest: that pitch shouldn’t have resulted in a strike. Pitchers have thrown 1,805 pitches that high or higher this year. Exactly seven of them have resulted in a strike of any kind. It was 0-1 only due to sheer luck.

Anderson didn’t want to test his high fastball command again, so this time he went low. Very low, in fact; he threw a changeup that nearly bounced. Or, would have nearly bounced, if Urías hadn’t been up to the same old tricks:

That one wasn’t much better than the first! I’ll give Urías a little more credit here, because he was fooled by the changeup and managed to hang with it, but that “swing,” if you can call it that, doesn’t give me much confidence in his ability to hold back on a bunt attempt. Bunts are easier to pull back than actual swings, naturally enough; you’re just holding the bat there for the most part, rather than firing off a complex muscle movement to whip the bat at a tremendous rate. Still, he couldn’t help himself.

In relation to the rest of the league, this bunt wasn’t quite as bad as the first. There have already been seven missed or foul bunts on lower pitches this year. That’s not a lot — there have been 720 missed or foul bunts overall, which means this was in the lowest 1%. At least it wasn’t the actual worst, though. That honor falls to this Danny Jansen howler:

On back to back pitches, Urías made two of the worst bunt attempts you’ll see this year. I suppose it’s marginally impressive that he got the bat on both of them, but seriously: just pull it back! The first one, in particular, could easily have turned into a pop out. Anderson threw two pitches that weren’t particularly good. He got two strikes for his troubles. Now he had to finish the deal.

What pitch do you call in this spot if you’re catcher William Contreras? The world is your oyster. Urías had expanded the zone to an absolutely comical extreme; he offered at two pitches nearly four feet apart in height on consecutive attempts. Fastball high? It certainly worked once, and there’s a lot of room below where Anderson threw it but still above the strike zone. Changeup low? Again, it certainly worked once.

He has a big-breaking curveball as well, though with such a nasty changeup, there hardly seemed reason to go to that. It was still an option — everything was still an option. The only thing that seemed unlikely is that Anderson would venture into the strike zone. There simply wasn’t much reason to. It was 0-2, and Urías wasn’t up there to walk; even if Anderson wasted two straight pitches and reached 2-2, he could just pipe one right down the middle. A bunt attempt isn’t the worst outcome for the defense here, even if a strikeout is far better.

Think with me for a moment. Here are the locations of the first two pitches of the sequence:

Imagine a dot where you’d aim your third pitch. You can choose a pitch type as well, though that’s largely going to be a function of where you choose to aim; hard stuff high and soft stuff low is an easy choice. Have that in your head? Great. Something tells me you didn’t pick here:

I don’t know, it’s not the worst location. It’s not a good one either, though. Urías’s zone was colossal. The consequences of a miss were minimal, particularly high; a bounced changeup could always score a run, but a too-high fastball is just a ball. That’s a fine fastball to throw if you miss high on 2-2, or if you miss low on 1-2, but here? With Urías doing that? No thank you.

Sadly for the poetry of the situation, that pitch wasn’t exactly halfway in between the two previous pitches. It was roughly six inches higher than the midpoint, though, still fairly close to splitting the difference. The first pitch was too high. The second pitch was too low. But the third pitch was just right, and after Lux scored on the safety squeeze, the Dodgers poured on six more runs in the inning, despite Betts making an out in the next plate appearance. Give your opponent a Goldilocks-located bunt, and you have no one to blame but yourself for letting them off the hook.

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

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2 years ago

I not only have read a lot of your work, I have read ALL of your work here. And enjoyed it very much.