The Best Bunts of the Year, Part Two

Yesterday, I compiled the worst bunts of the season. They were bad in various ways — poor execution, great defense, a spot where failing was particularly painful — but they all cost their team dearly. Today, we’re looking at the opposite: the bunts that have added the most value.

As a refresher, this absolute gem was the best bunt of the first third of the season:

That perfect execution of an audacious plan is the platonic ideal of a bunt. If every successful bunt this season was like that, this would be a really fun series to write. A well-placed bunt is art; post five of those, and I could skate by with almost no commentary and let the GIFs do the talking.

Sadly, that’s not quite the case. There’s quite a bit of bad defense this time around — plenty of errors in the top five. That’s just how bunts work: they’re designed to force the defense to make a play, and while defenders are excellent, they’re not automatons. A sacrifice bunt that works as planned is never going to be one of the best plays a team can make — it’s designed to minimize variance, neither as bad as a strikeout nor as good as a single. The best bunts of the year by WPA, then, need to either score runs without surrendering outs or feature dubious fielding.

So yeah, some of these bunts aren’t perfectly placed gems that the defense has to eat. Some of them are just players making bad throws or bad decisions. As a palate cleanser, though, take a look at this beautiful honorable mention.

August 18, Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers

The situation:
The Brewers had already scored once in the top of the 10th, but a second run is pivotal with the free runner involved. Yelich was in an extended slump — hitting .250/.304/.375 in the last month before this game. Alex Reyes might be wild, but he’s also wildly difficult to square up. It was time for a change of pace.

The play:

The gain: +.16 WPA
Edmundo Sosa, a great bunter himself, was on the wrong side of this one. He replaced Nolan Arenado after Arenado was ejected for arguing balls and strikes, then had to make a difficult running play from a tough position against Yelich. It was a near thing — the Cardinals actually challenged — but Yelich was clearly safe. It wasn’t a perfect bunt, but it didn’t have to be, which made bunting in this situation attractive. Yelich needed to succeed about a third of the time for this play to make sense, and I think he was safely in that band.

That’s one way a bunt can work out: a perfectly placed shot that the defense simply can’t beat. The rest of these plays — well, there’s more than one way to succeed on a bunt, let’s just put it that way. On to the list!

5. June 27, Robbie Grossman, Detroit Tigers

The situation:
After shutting down the Astros in the top of the 10th inning, the Tigers were in the driver’s seat. Akil Baddoo started on second base, and a Jonathan Schoop groundout moved him to third base, which meant Grossman was a fly ball or well-placed grounder away from ending things. The Astros brought the infield in, though they were clearly hoping for a strikeout.

The play:

The gain: +.17 WPA
The only reason this bunt didn’t rank higher is that the Tigers were already quite likely to win. The bunt was absolutely beautiful, though. It was placed perfectly, far enough from the plate that someone other than Jason Castro needed to make a play. Grossman also disguised it well enough that no infielders had time to crash. He hadn’t squared around even as Blake Taylor made his stride home:

Also part of the disguise? The entire history of Robbie Grossman’s career. That was only the third bunt he’s attempted in the past three years. Even that overstates it: throughout his career, he’s intermittently tried to bunt against the shift, but only when hitting lefty. This was truly out of nowhere, and Taylor was suitably surprised.

The best part of this bunt? It was good enough to succeed even without Baddoo getting a huge jump. He waited for Grossman to get the bunt down before taking off, more safety squeeze than all-out charge. The play wasn’t as close as it looked, either; Taylor made a hurried underhand throw, but Baddoo still beat the ball home, and Castro couldn’t scoop the ball cleanly in any case.

4. August 16, Wilmer Difo, Pittsburgh Pirates

The situation:
The Dodgers and Pirates were locked in a scoreless duel when Pittsburgh put two runners on to start the top of the seventh inning. The pitcher’s spot was due up next, so the Pirates brought in Difo. He showed bunt on the first pitch before taking a ball, which put the Dodgers infield on notice.

The play:

The gain: +.2 WPA
Cody Bellinger will want that one back. He approached the ball more casually than you’d like to see on a timing-centric play, then took a brief peek at second before going to first. There was never going to be a play at second here, given how long Bellinger took getting to the ball. Then, he yanked the throw. Max Muncy is one of the best second basemen I can imagine for covering first base (I’d take Javier Báez over him, and that’s about it), but no one’s catching this:

What can I say? That was a bad play all around. Difo was credited with a single, but c’mon. A little more urgency, an accurate throw, and that would have been an out. It wouldn’t have been devastating to the Pirates’ chances — per our WPA Inquirer, Pittsburgh’s odds of winning would have increased slightly with a successful sacrifice — but it would have put a lot of pressure on Hoy Park, the next batter, to put the ball in play. Instead, Pittsburgh got the advancement, and some more advancement, and a run, and no outs, and naturally the Dodgers won the game because it’s the Dodgers against the Pirates.

3. August 8, Jarrod Dyson, Kansas City Royals

The situation:
The Royals were starting to feel this game slip through their grasp. After taking a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning, they surrendered three runs to St. Louis to tie things up. There was hope after Hanser Alberto reached to start the inning — string a few hits together, hold the Cardinals in the bottom of the inning, and it could be a happy ending despite a brief detour. Dyson showed bunt on the first pitch, which gave the Cardinals infielders license to crash.

The play:

The gain: +.24 WPA
I already wrote an article about this one! The gist of it is that Paul Goldschmidt had a tough decision to make when he fielded the ball. Make a perfect throw, and he might just get Alberto at second. That’s a big game, but I don’t think it actually made sense. With Alex Reyes on the mound, walks and strikeouts are most definitely on the menu; keeping runners out of scoring position matters slightly less there.

In any case, Dyson’s bunt simply gave the Cardinals enough room to do something risky. That could have worked out poorly for the Royals — sacrificing an out against a wild pitcher is asking for trouble. It could have worked out neutrally — getting a runner to second with one out has inherent value. It could have worked out quite well, if the Cardinals went for too much — and they did.

One factor that makes this bunt better than it might first appear: it was absolutely pouring in St. Louis. That was the last pitch thrown for roughly two hours; a weather delay immediately followed this play. Knowing that it would be tough to get a grip on the ball makes me like a bunt more; Dyson puts pressure on the defense with his speed as it is, but that speed combined with iffy conditions made this play a dangerous one right from the start, even if Goldschmidt had decided to go to first.

2. June 22, Kevin Newman, Pittsburgh Pirates

The situation:
The Pirates trailed by a run heading into the bottom of the seventh after giving up a back-breaking three-run homer in the top half of the inning. But hey! They started the inning off with two straight singles, right back in it. One problem: Newman, the next man up, has been one of the worst hitters in the game this year. A bunt here seems like a great decision to me; even in a neutral context, a successful sacrifice is a decent play, and the context is far from neutral with Newman at the plate.

The play:

The gain: +.26 WPA
Newman got credit for a single on this one, but I don’t think he deserved it. Yoán Moncada didn’t act like he needed to rush, gloving the ball and making a transfer. Even with that little maneuver costing him precious fractions of a second, a clean throw would have gotten Newman. Take a gander at an unavoidably blurry shot of the ball beating Newman to the bag:

The ball hit Danny Mendick squarely in the glove, too. Sure, he had to lean for it, but first basemen usually make that play — though not second basemen charging to first and then leaning back against their momentum. Of course, making the play would be fine for the Pirates; that’s why teams bunt in situations like this. Newman put down a good enough bunt that there were no good options for the White Sox, and they ended up turning a neutral play into a disaster. Good bunting decision, decent bunting execution — sometimes that’s enough to flip a game into your favor.

1. August 10, Jonathan Villar, New York Mets

The situation:
The scuffling Mets were locked in a tight game with the 50-63 Nationals. The Nats clung to a one-run lead when J.D. Davis doubled to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning. As I’ve often mentioned in these articles, playing for a tie isn’t a good reason to bunt, but don’t tell the Mets that. Villar squared up fairly early and went for a straight sacrifice.

The play:

The gain: +.28 WPA
This one isn’t making the Tom Emanski fundamental skills compilation. Villar’s bunt wasn’t well-placed, and it would have cost the Mets if Mason Thompson had fielded it cleanly. James McCann and Brandon Drury were due up next, which made surrendering an out even more dubious. But what can I say? Sometimes, they don’t field it cleanly. There was no sense of urgency here, no need to hurry. Villar was already throttling down, sure he was beat. This frame says it all:

This wasn’t some bang-bang play, some split-second heroic attempt. It was a pitcher tossing a ball into right field, and a second baseman out of position to back up a poor throw. What can I say? That happens sometimes! It doesn’t happen very often — major leaguers are on the whole excellent fielders — but an occasional booted ball isn’t out of the question. It might not be a thrill a minute, but that bunt was the best of the season — so far.

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

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9 months ago

If you do any more in this series next year, can you eliminate the plays that involved errors?

9 months ago
Reply to  beaster

Errors add significantly to wpa though, surely? And Ben even writes that putting pressure on defense is the purpose of the bunt. I think we’d miss more fun plays than add by removing them.

9 months ago
Reply to  Kevbot034

Agreed. At least part of the value of bunting is forcing defenders to make plays they don’t normally make (for instance, as happened multiple times in these plays, 2nd basemen cosplaying as 1st basemen). It may not always be pretty to watch, but it’s certainly important to consider the plays with errors!