So far, it’s been an exciting season of change for Kyle Schwarber. He showed up to camp in the best shape of his life, and while those stories are typically easy to dismiss, Schwarber has undergone something of a transformation. He’s sitting on what would be a career-high WAR. He’s walking more than he used to, and he’s striking out less than he used to. He’s hitting ground balls more than he used to, but he’s also still hitting for power, because he’s attempting to hit more line drives. Most impressively, Schwarber has turned himself into a pretty good defensive corner outfielder. His range is basically average, and his throwing arm is a weapon. The Cubs always said they believed in Schwarber’s future. We’re seeing the best version of him that there’s been.
There is an entire article to be written about appreciating Kyle Schwarber in general. This article is about appreciating Kyle Schwarber in specific. Because in the ninth inning against the Giants on Wednesday, Schwarber bunted for a single with two strikes and the bases empty. This is one of those plays that just can’t be ignored.
Bunting with two strikes is already fairly rare. You understand why — bunting is a lot harder than it would appear, and a missed or foul bunt with two strikes leads to a strikeout. Nobody wants to strike out bunting. Nobody wants to strike out, period, but at least when you strike out swinging, you don’t look like a coward. So much of baseball is about not looking like a coward. This year, there have been 155 two-strike bunt attempts. This counts missed bunts, foul bunts, and bunts put in play.
Of those 155 bunt attempts, however, 131 have been attempted by pitchers. This isn’t surprising; pitchers are almost uniformly terrible hitters, and their egos don’t get in the way. Often, the pitchers are being asked to just move a runner over, and with two strikes, teams figure they might as well bunt, since swinging away doesn’t often yield a positive result. There’s less to be gained from a swing, so it’s easier to decide the bunt is the right call. Even with two strikes, pitchers aren’t so afraid of bunting, because pitchers as hitters suck.
Kyle Schwarber didn’t just bunt with two strikes. He bunted with two strikes and the bases empty in front of him. He bunted as a non-pitcher. He bunted as a pretty good hitter. This year, there have been 14 two-strike bunt attempts with the bases empty. Just three of those have been attempted by pitchers — twice by Jose Urena. Of the 14 attempts, six have resulted in strikeouts. Eight have resulted in balls in play, and four of those have resulted in hits. Schwarber successfully bunted for a hit.
Schwarber’s ninth-inning opponent was lefty Will Smith. The game was tied, and there were two outs. It’s not like Schwarber was trying to bunt from the get-go. On the first pitch, he couldn’t hold up against a slider out of the zone:
On the next pitch, he flailed at another slider out of the zone:
That quickly, Schwarber found himself behind 0-and-2. He took a slider, then he took another, bringing the count even. On the fifth pitch — another slider — Schwarber swung:
These aren’t real good swings you’re seeing. That’s not a shock, because Smith is a terrific lefty reliever, and he throws a wipeout slider. Schwarber couldn’t have been that comfortable. This year, Smith has struck out 47% of lefties. Over his career as a reliever, he’s struck out 41% of lefties, allowing a .270 wOBA. This year, Schwarber has struck out against 33% of lefties. Over his career, he’s struck out against 37% of lefties, managing a .276 wOBA. Smith vs. Schwarber is a good matchup for the Giants. It’s especially good when Smith has advanced to a two-strike count.
Think about the plate appearance, then. At 0-and-2, and even at 2-and-2, Schwarber was facing some long odds. It wasn’t too terribly likely he’d be able to do much with a swing. So, what about a bunt? There was reduced reason not to try a bunt. At 0-and-0, Schwarber wasn’t bunting. At 0-and-1, he wasn’t bunting. At 0-and-2, he wasn’t bunting. At 1-and-2, he wasn’t bunting. At 2-and-2 the first time, he wasn’t bunting. At 2-and-2 the second time? The second time, he bunted.
Perfect execution. Maybe it made things easier that Smith threw his first fastball of the at-bat. Maybe that actually made things worse. But, the Giants were shifted against Schwarber, which opened up that entire left side. Schwarber took exactly the advantage fans are always clamoring for.
In such an alignment, all you have to do is bunt the ball fair by the pitcher. Schwarber got the ball far enough beyond Smith, which meant Smith didn’t have a play. In the aftermath, Smith briefly expressed his frustration, while Schwarber couldn’t help but smile at first base.
The other day, Jerry Crasnick published an article at ESPN about lefties facing the shift. He talked to Daniel Murphy, Kyle Seager, and Matt Carpenter about approach adjustments, and this is something Seager said about trying to put down a bunt:
“I’ve tried to bunt a few times, and I’ve had a few successes. But the third baseman is usually still in there for the first two strikes, so the bunt is not as big a factor as it could be. Again, it’s dictated by the score and the situation in the game.”
Seager notes that, before two-strike counts, the third baseman is still typically in position to cover for a bunt. And then once the count gets to two strikes, then he moves to his left. It’s not always true, but it’s frequently true, and even though the TV broadcast didn’t give us field shots while Schwarber was up, Statcast comes to the rescue. When Smith threw his first pitch, the third baseman was 101 feet away from home plate. When Smith threw his second pitch, the third baseman was 108 feet away from home plate. The count was 0-and-2, and for all subsequent pitches, the third baseman was about 150 feet away from home plate. The third baseman shifted, assuming the bunt was no longer in play. Schwarber saw that and responded to it. The rare two-strike bases-empty bunt single.
There have been four such bunt hits this season. Here’s one from June 26, in Los Angeles:
It’s…Kyle Schwarber, taking advantage of a shift.
In just over two weeks — over the course of 12 games played — Schwarber picked up a pair of hits on two-strike bunts with the bases empty. The other such hits this season belong to Ender Inciarte and Yolmer Sanchez. Schwarber, then, has half of them. And I was able to pull up numbers going back to 2008, covering the entire pitch-tracking era. With two strikes and the bases empty, there have been 167 bunt attempts. Of those, 97 have resulted in strikeouts. That means 70 have resulted in balls in play, and 26 of those have resulted in hits. That’s a 42% in-play rate, and a 16% hit rate.
The leader in overall attempts is Carlos Gomez. He’s at 16, with seven of those in play. Up next is Dee Gordon, with 13 attempts, seven of which have gone in play. There are 26 players with multiple attempts. Schwarber, of course, is one of them. You can call him 2-for-2. He hasn’t missed or fouled a two-strike bunt with the bases empty. He’s put both his attempts in play, and they’ve both gone for hits. Of the 26 players with multiple attempts, Schwarber is the only one who hasn’t struck out trying.
And for one last statistical summary, since 2008, Gordon and Carlos Pena are tied for first with four two-strike bunt hits with the bases empty. Gomez has three. Schwarber and Brett Gardner each have two. And that’s it for the multiples; 11 different players have one each. Schwarber is climbing up on this list, where as recently as June 25, his name didn’t even appear.
One of the other arguments against bunting versus the shift is that in this day and age, it can be hard to drive a guy home after a single. Hits are scarce, and singles often require another two singles to come around. Sure enough, on Wednesday, Schwarber was stranded at first, because the batter after him grounded out. The Cubs would ultimately lose the game. Maybe they would’ve been better off with Schwarber swinging away, trying to hit a dinger. A dinger would mean a run, and a run would mean a lead. What’s the utility of a two-out, two-strike, bases-empty bunt single, anyway? What did Schwarber think was going to happen?
Yet there’s dreaming, and there’s reality, and, in reality, Schwarber’s chances against Smith with two strikes were desperately low. The bunt allowed for a chance for something to happen. The bunt was a lot better than a bad swinging strikeout. When the count gets to two strikes, teams often move their third baseman from third base to shortstop. Area opens up, because the bunt is unexpected. All credit to Kyle Schwarber for not being afraid to look like a coward. The bunt is a weapon, and even when on the verge of a strikeout, it’s all just a matter of probability. Schwarber, twice now, has liked his chances.
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.