The Most Confident Bunt of the Year

Sure, this might be a weird time to talk about something from June 4. It’s not like there’s any real urgency to this. And I will grant the unfamiliar phraseology.

I’ll explain how I got here. As I write this, the Twins are getting pasted by the Yankees. The Yankees are winning 11-3, but at one point, in the third, they were losing 3-0. In that inning, Byron Buxton came up with two outs and runners on the corners, and when he saw the first pitch from Luis Severino, he tried to bunt. The bunt went foul, but the very attempt struck me as odd. I went to look up some stuff about bunts.

The Buxton bunt attempt, sure, was unusual. Rare is the two-out bunt with a runner in scoring position. But, forget all about the Buxton bunt, because I’d like to call your attention to a Cody Bellinger bunt. Three and a half months ago, Bellinger batted against Zach Davies, with nobody out and a runner on first. With the count 3-and-0, Bellinger bunted for a single.

It should be clear from the video that Bellinger wasn’t just trying to lay down a sacrifice. In a two-run game, it wasn’t a sacrifice situation, and with Adrian Gonzalez on first, it especially wasn’t a sacrifice situation, since, whether he’s on first or second, the only way Gonzalez is scoring is on a homer. Bellinger was going for a hit, and he’s pretty good at that. This year, he has six bunt hits. Only seven players have more. Bellinger’s been trained well to take advantage of the defensive over-shift.

It’s not strange to see Bellinger bunting for a hit. It’s strange to see him bunting at 3-and-0. It’s strange to see anyone bunting at 3-and-0. It’s such an absurdly hitter-friendly count that players just don’t want to lay one down. Bellinger is the only player to bunt a ball fair in a 3-and-0 count this season. Nobody did it last season. Nobody did it the season before. Nobody did it the season before that. Elvis Andrus put down the last fair bunt in a 3-and-0 count, in 2013. It’s been a while.

Yunel Escobar missed with a 3-and-0 bunt attempt in 2013. In 2014, Brett Gardner attempted a 3-and-0 bunt and hit the ball foul. And then there’s Brandon Belt, this past May 3. Belt actually beat Bellinger to the punch, kind of.

That’s a 3-and-0 bunt attempt for a hit against the shift. The ball simply wound up foul. It was the first 3-and-0 bunt attempt in a few years, so Belt’s try is remarkable on its own, but I don’t think it was a bunt characterized by its confidence. It was so early there wasn’t so much at stake, and Belt might’ve just felt *less* than confident about his chances of getting a regular hit against Julio Urias. Bellinger came up later in the game, and he had the platoon advantage against a tiring, softer-throwing starter. Everyone in the world would’ve expected Bellinger to want to swing away. That was exactly what he wanted them to think.

The defense left the left side wide open.

Let’s talk about bunts and confidence for a minute. Analysts have argued for years that there should be more bunt attempts against the shift. Players have often responded that bunting against major-league pitchers is just incredibly difficult. There’s every reason to believe them. So, already, you don’t often find confidence in a big-league bunter, unless he’s a burner who’s had the skill since the low minors. Why does it take confidence to bunt at 3-and-0? Wouldn’t it take more confidence to bunt with two strikes? I get it, but I don’t agree. With two strikes, hitters feel backed into a corner. There would be less for them to lose. At 3-and-0, there’s plenty to lose, if a bunt stays fair and goes sour. Bellinger would’ve had no reason to doubt his own full swing. And when Davies has gotten to 3-and-0 counts in his career, he’s allowed a 1.525 OPS. After the count goes 3-and-0, the hitter usually reaches. And Bellinger knew Davies wouldn’t want to walk him, putting the tying runner aboard.

Bellinger figured Davies would have to throw a strike. Probably a hittable strike. Hitters would salivate over the prospect of Zach Davies throwing a hittable strike. Bellinger took that educated guess, and decided to go a different direction.

Any action taken is as much about the actions not taken. Anything you do closes other doors. As Bellinger prepared for the 3-and-0 pitch, he thought about the damage he could do with a swing. But he also thought about the bunt, because the defense was giving it away. The pitch was likely to be a fastball in the zone, and those are probably the most buntable pitches. Davies has never blown anyone away. Indeed, the pitch he threw at 3-and-0 was clocked at 89 miles per hour. You see it there, at the thigh and over the middle. That’s a pitch hitters would mostly want to drive, especially when a homer could tie the game up. But Bellinger opted to play the percentages. I’m not even actually sure if he made the right decision, here. But he made a confident one. Bellinger came in slugging .568, and as he encountered the above scenario, he liked his bunt even more than he liked his swing. Bellinger reached, and Davies didn’t throw another pitch.

You could interpret Belt’s as a bunt for survival. A bunt to try to get a rally started. It’s something, absolutely. But it wasn’t the Bellinger bunt, because that one required something more. Incidentally, when Belt attempted his bunt, Bellinger had already reached on two bunt singles on the season. For that reason, as Belt squared around, Dodgers broadcaster Joe Davis said the following.

And tries to bunt to beat it but it will roll foul. Taking a page from Cody Bellinger’s book.

Belt, again, tried his 3-and-0 bunt in early May. Bellinger tried *his* in early June. Sometimes profundity is accidental.

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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6 years ago

What a strangely archetypal Sullivan article. Thanks, as ever.

Jetsy Extrano
6 years ago
Reply to  bunslow

What is the most Jeff Sullivan article of all time?

On Fangraphs, otherwise I think Lookout Landing would dominate the whole Top Ten.