Bunts were more topical before the Royals discovered how to hit home runs in the playoffs. But bunt fever can never be cured, only controlled. Hopefully people have a more nuanced view of bunts. Jeff Sullivan recently discussed how the Royals’ bunts this year actually have not been so bad according to Win Probability Added, a tool I also use in my annual Best and Worst Bunts posts (the anticipation is building!).
While much of the positive value of bunts comes from the chances of the defense making errors. A WPA analysis takes into account the game state — at some point things like one-run strategies are pretty good ideas. Moreover some players are better bunters than others, and some players are such poor hitters that bunting might be more advisable for them than others.
Looking back at the 2014 regular season, which players were better off bunting?
More than one might think, actually. There are a number of angles one might take to figure out which players were “better off bunting.” WPA might work, or, if you want to get rid of the leverage elements, one could use RE24. But let’s take things to something closer to a context-neutral sandpoint, using wOBA (which itself is just a particular implementation of linear weights).
I took each hitter’s line and calculated his wOBA subtracting the bunts. Then I calculated the player’s wOBA when bunting. I then compared the two. I am treating all bunts for hits as singles, and all bunts that are not counted as hits as singles outs. Obviously, misses much of what makes bunts potentially good or bad, for examples, reached on errors or double plays. It is a blunt instrument, but might be revealing. Keep in mind that this is just observed performance during the 2014 season, not an estimate of true talent, which is another limitation.
The players surveyed had to have at least 15 bunts, as otherwise it includes too many sluggers who laid down a few surprise bunts. That’s a good strategy, but sort of misses what I was trying to get at — players who bunt relatively frequently and were better off doing it than when they swung away in 2010.
Of the 17 players with at least 15 bunts and 400 plate appearances, 11 had a better when bunting than when not. of the 30 with at least 10 bunts, 17 were better off bunting. In other words, the regular players who are bunting the most were good at it this season. The players (or their managers) are generally making good choices. This is not to say that the players who were not as successful by this measure should not have been bunting. Maybe it just did not work out, or maybe they got more reached on errors, or were bunting on obvious sacrifice situations.
Some trivia before we getting to the give players with the biggest differences between the bunt and non-bunt wOBA. Brett Gardner had the biggest negative difference between when he bunted and did not this season — his wOBA was .239 worse when he bunted this season than when he did not. See the qualifications above, although now that Gardner is a home run hitter, maybe he should never bunt again (take it easy, that is a joke). Surprisingly, Dee Gordon, who actually led baseball in bunts for hits, did not make the top five, although he was seventh.
5. Denard Span (8347) .341 wOBA overall, .446 wOBA when bunting, .339 wOBA when not bunting, .107 difference.
Span turned 30 just before the start of the season. He has been a useful player for a while, but his first two years with the Twins, during which he put up a 122 and 118 wRC+, respectively, seem like a distant memory. Most of the seasons since then have been below average as his BABIP settled down a bit and most of his other peripherals declined as well.
It was a surprise, then, when in 2014 Span turned in his best season at the plate since 2009, hitting .302/.355/.416. Part of that was a small improvement in BABIP over past seasons, but he also cut his strikeout rate by about two percent — more balls in play usually means more hits.
Outside of a concussion-shortened 2011, bunting for hits has been a pretty big part of Span’s offensive game for a while. He managed a hit in half of his bunts this season, and he has actually done that and better before. He is so low on this list because he was actually a valuable as a hitter this year, overall.
4. Jean Segura (5933) .272 overall wOBA, .388 wOBA when bunting, .267 wOBA when not bunting, .121 difference.
Assuming that first- and second-half splits have predictive value is generally a mistake, but if you know anything about Jean Segura, you know that after a hot first half for the Brewers in 2013, the former Angels prospect he has been pretty much horrible ever since. He had a hot enough first half in 2013 to finish with a 105 wRC+ (.294/.329/.423) despite having just a 56 wRC+ in the second half. His 2014 was much closer to 2013’s second half, though — a disastrous 67 wRC+ (.246/.289.326). It is not as if Segura is known for his glove, either. You know a guy has had a big year at the plate when a Brewers fan can look at his 2015 Steamer projection for an 88 wRC+ and be rather excited.
Just from his offensive performance this year, one might glean that bunting relatively often would be a good idea for Segura. He has good speed, after all. Last year he had a hit rate over over 40 percent on bunts. He had pretty much the same rate this season, going 10 for 23 for a .388 wOBA when bunting. If he bunts too much, of course, teams are going to adjust, but even if he manages to improve all the way to a 90 wRC+, trying to bunt for a hit might be a good idea.
Speaking of Brewers, here is a surprise:
3 Carlos Gomez (4881) .368 wOBA, .401 wOBA when bunting, .364 wOBA sans bunts, .137 difference
Most of the players on this list make it in not just because they are good at bunting for hits, but because they are pretty poor hitters otherwise. Back in 2011 (82 wRC+) he was obviously a player who to try and bunt for hits, but in 2012 he made some adjustments that helped bring his innate power to the fore. Since then, his ability to hit the ball hard despite questionable plate discipline (although that has improved) had made him a very good hitter. Couple that with good baserunning and defense, and you have a dark horse NL MVP candidate.
Gomez not only has the highest overall wOBA (and non-bunt) wOBA of any hitter on this list, he also has the highest wOBA while bunting of any player on this list. On a more interesting note, while Gomez was a pretty decent at bunting for hits prior to 2013, his rate of bunting for hits has gone up over 50 percent the last two seasons. Now, this is at least in part due to random variation, but it might also be that since Gomez has learned to drive the ball, opposing fielders are having to play further back against him, in turn making the bunts a more effective weapon.
2. Erick Aybar (4082) .308 wOBA, .446 wOBA when bunting, .304 wOBA when not bunting, .142 difference
How much has the run environment changed over the last few years? In 2008, Erick Aybar had a .309 wOBA, good for a substantially below-average 86 wRC+. In 2014, Aybar had a .308 wOBA, good for a just-above-average 101 wRC+. Aybar is a decent defensive shortstop who puts the ball into play enough with just enough pop to be a league-average hitter once the Angels’ tough park is taken into account. That makes for an above-average overall player. Aybar also bunts for hits well enough to help himself out, especially this season.
1 Leonys Martin (11846) .306 wOBA, .446 wOBA when bunting, .297 wOBA sans bunts, .149 difference.
Martin was second in baseball to Dee Gordon in bunts for hits, but had a better percentage. He also hit worse than Gordon. On the year Martin hit .274/.325/.364 (89 wRC+). He will be 27 to start next season, so he is not a super-youngster by baseball standards. At this point Martin probably is who he is: a below-average hitter with poor plate discipline and below-average power who has enough blazing speed to make himself into an above average overall player due to his contributions in the field and on the basepaths. Some season he might hit the BABIP jackpot and suddenly people will think he is a star. Hey, it worked for Lorenzo Cain.
This is not to put Martin (or Cain!) down. It is simply an honest appraisal of his value. It is more difficult to measure defense than hitting and baserunning, but that does not mean it is not valuable. More to the point, bunting has clearly added to Martin’s value at the plate the last two seasons. He has bunted at least 30 times a season, and has managed an excellent rate of hits, aside from any situational context. It is difficult to say how teams are playing Martin — he has a bit of doubles and triples power. It is not clear that he should bunt any more than he is, but it would be hard to say he is bunting too much. To put a .446 wOBA into context: Josh Hamilton had a .445 wOBA during his insane 2010 season. Would you rather have that or a .300 wOBA peashooter?
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.