Kyle Seager and the Weaponized Bunt

When I first started getting into sabermetrics, there were a lot of people writing about the stupidity of the bunt. That’s one of the first lessons everyone learns, and, not coincidentally, we’re seeing bunts on the decline, league-wide. More recently, analysts have come to celebrate the bunt. But not the sacrifice bunt — what we want to see more of are bunts against the shift. You could say the play itself is fine; it just requires a certain set of circumstances. Bunting against the shift inspired a whole recurring column at Baseball Prospectus by Ben Lindbergh. It’s a seemingly obvious tactic, that’s also seemingly under-utilized. For now.

So, there are times when it’s smart to bunt. The bunt shouldn’t be eliminated from the game entirely. Sometimes, it’s smart to bunt against the shift. Sometimes, it’s smart to bunt not against the shift, if you’re quick. Sometimes, yes, it’s smart to drop down a sacrifice. And Tuesday night, Kyle Seager demonstrated another sort of intelligent bunt. It didn’t work, but since when do we get wrapped up in the results?

It was the fifth inning, and the Mariners and Yankees were tied at one. There were two outs, but the Mariners had runners on the corners. So, with the go-ahead run 90 feet away, Seager stepped in against CC Sabathia. The whole of it:


Seager bunted. But he didn’t bunt well enough, so he was thrown out by two steps, and that was the inning. It was certainly a surprising play, because Seager is one of the team’s good hitters, and good hitters generally want to swing in swing situations. Seager isn’t fast. Nor was he bunting into an over-shift:


Because Seager didn’t swing the bat, it looked bad. Because Sabathia handled the ball easily and threw to first on the mark, it looked bad. It looked like a give-up attempt, but of course, it wasn’t that at all.

Plenty of things to keep in mind. Seager’s a left-handed hitter, with more or less a normal platoon split. Steamer projects him for a .298 wOBA against southpaws. Sabathia has his problems, but then, he’s also a southpaw, and even lately he’s been effective against left-handed hitters. So in that matchup, maybe you’d expect a wOBA in the .290 – .300 range. In Seager’s first at-bat against Sabathia, he struck out swinging. In the next at-bat, he struck out swinging. And in this at-bat, Seager took a first-pitch strike, so he fell behind in the count, lowering the expected wOBA. At the time of the bunt, the odds strongly favored that Sabathia would get Seager out.

Then you have the other variables. Sabathia is, visually, a large man. The last few years, he’s been one of the worse defensive pitchers in baseball, if you think those numbers mean anything. Perhaps more importantly, Sabathia’s not far off knee surgery. So you’re expecting limited mobility. Already, Sabathia wouldn’t be looking for the bunt, nor would any of the infielders. So the element of surprise is present. Then you have Sabathia maybe not moving very well, and, how many times do you see a pitcher make an errant throw to first?

What I don’t know is the expected wOBA of a bunt attempt. Not all bunt attempts yield fair bunts, so the statistics can mislead. Batting average on bunts doesn’t get you far enough. But I’m pretty confident suggesting that Seager had better odds there trying to bunt than he did trying to swing. The count was against him, the matchup was against him, and it’s possible he wasn’t seeing the ball well against Sabathia on the night. And Seager has something of an established history of bunting against the shift, so it’s not an unfamiliar maneuver for him.

Hell, Seager did this in 2013 with a runner on third, albeit with one out instead of two:

It’s an uncommon play, but that doesn’t make it a bad one. In fact, that’s part of what makes it such a good one. This year, there have been 15 fair bunts with two outs and a runner or two in scoring position. Nine of them have gone for hits. Five have driven in runs, and here’s an example of Carlos Gomez pulling it off against the Tigers:

Gomez is one of the other good hitters with the nerve to try it. Eric Hosmer tried it against the same-handed David Price. The Giants have actually attempted three of these, putting them in the early league lead. Brandon Crawford, Gregor Blanco, and Nori Aoki all attempted such bunts against same-handed pitchers. (Two of them worked.) You wonder if it’s a case of Bruce Bochy picking up on something — last year, the Giants led the league with four such bunts against. But that’s an over-simplification, and two of those bunts were attempted by Franklin Morales. Sometimes the Play Index tells you weird things.

The general point: in certain circumstances, the bunt is an under-utilized weapon. It remains under-utilized against the shift, but it’s also under-utilized in run-scoring situations, when the hitter is facing perhaps a platoon disadvantage. In Seager’s case specifically, he was bunting against a pitcher who might not move very well, but that’s not always necessary; you just need to catch the defensive team by surprise. Maybe you bunt against a pitcher who falls off the mound. For however much crap a hitter might get for trying to steal a single instead of swinging away, bunts are a lot cooler when they bring a runner home. Too often, hitters are leaving RBI on the bases.

After Sabathia made the play and threw Seager out, he shouted a few obscenities, not at Seager directly, but about him. Sabathia had every reason to be fired up; he worked out of a jam, and he responded well to a personal challenge. But as he said later, after everything had been decided:

“I shouldn’t have been fired up; that was actually a good play,” Sabathia said. “Normally I don’t do this, but I can admit when I’m wrong. I was wrong right there. I’m just glad I got the out.”

Credit to Sabathia for having the ability to make the play. Credit to Seager for having the balls to make him have to make it.

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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8 years ago

I like the play, but I think he probably should have gone up the first base line with it. Sabathia, as a lefty, falls off to third. If the first baseman comes in to get the ball, there would be no one with the second baseman so deep in the outfield to cover first. Seager would either have to beat Teixiera or Sabathia to the bag, both of which have good odds.

8 years ago
Reply to  Darkstone42

Obviously, if this bunt was right up the third base line, or even just a bit closer to it, it’s a hit, but on the first base side, with the first baseman possibly breaking in on the ball, he might have had more margin for error, I guess is where I’m going with this.

8 years ago
Reply to  Darkstone42

It was a pretty shitty bunt. A few more feet towards the line and it would have worked as that would be the fringe of CC’s range. Most guys greatly prefer bunting to the off field.

8 years ago
Reply to  vince

That’s so weird to me, because I always pulled my drag bunts. It’s just how my bat angled when I tried to get it down quickly and on the move. Maybe it’s because I’m right handed and it’s different for a lefty?