Why Are the Atlanta Braves Bunting at All?

The Atlanta Braves don’t bunt much. To be fair, most teams aren’t bunting all that often these days, especially since the introduction of the universal designated hitter. The Braves, however, still stand out from the pack. In an age of reduced bunting, Atlanta is leading the charge.

Of the thousands of balls the Braves have put into play this year, only four have been bunts. Of their 1,327 hits this season, only one has come on a bunt. One. You’d be hard-pressed to find any other counting stat category on the FanGraphs leaderboards with the number one written next to a team’s name.

The bunt-tracking era at FanGraphs began in 2002. (Side note: I’m going to take credit for coining the phrase “bunt-tracking era.”) Records for sacrifice bunts were kept long before 2002, but the data for bunts and bunt hits only goes back 21 years. In that time, the lowest number of bunts for a team in a full season is 12, courtesy of the 2018 Toronto Blue Jays. With a mere four bunts this season, the Braves are nestled amongst most teams from the shortened 2020 season at the bottom of the team bunt leaderboards:

Fewest Bunts by a Team in a Full Season
Team Year Bunts
Atlanta Braves 2022 4
Toronto Blue Jays 2018 12
Los Angeles Dodgers 2022 13
Oakland Athletics 2018 14
Texas Rangers 2005 15
Oakland Athletics 2019 16
Minnesota Twins 2022 16

Barring a sudden shift in team philosophy and a huge increase in bunt attempts over the final week of the season — it’s not going to happen, but you have to admit, it would be fun — Atlanta will set a new record for the fewest bunts by a team in the bunt-tracking era. We’ll never know for sure, but it isn’t farfetched to suggest the Braves will finish with fewer bunts than any other team in the history of the 162-game season.

It’s true that bunts are down around the sport these days, both because of changing trends and the lack of pitchers hitting. Even so, the Braves are an outlier. They have bunted 70 fewer times than the league-leading Angels. That’s 18.5 times less often. Even the Dodgers, the team with the second-fewest bunts, have nine more than the Braves. At this rate, Atlanta could play two more full seasons and still not record as many bunts as the Dodgers have this season – and the Dodgers also don’t bunt much. How often do you see such a huge discrepancy between teams in a statistical category?

It would seem that Atlanta’s coaching staff and front office heavily discourage bunting. But if they are so strongly opposed to the tactic, I have to wonder: Why do the Braves bunt at all? What makes a team that bunts so rarely decide to bunt on a few particular occasions? Apparently, something was special about the four plate appearances in which Atlanta chose to bunt. Something about those exact circumstances led the Braves to try out a strategy they usually avoid. So what was it?

May 15 vs. the Padres

Atlanta’s first bunt came 35 games into the year. It was the bottom of the 10th inning with no outs, the game tied, and the designated runner on second base. Orlando Arcia, the nine-hole hitter, laid down a bunt in an attempt to sacrifice William Contreras over to third base. It was a pretty textbook move. The Braves only needed one run to win, and advancing a runner to third with only one out would increase their chances of getting that run across the plate. It’s one of the few situations in which a sacrifice is truly a worthwhile move. It was the perfect time for a bunt.

Unfortunately, the execution wasn’t quite so perfect. Neither Arcia nor Contreras pulled off the play effectively. Arcia bunted it right at pitcher Nabil Crismatt with enough zip to reach him quickly. Contreras, meanwhile, did not get a strong jump at second base and was thrown out at third by Crismatt.

The situation may have called for a bunt. But a strategy is only as good as its execution. Neither Contreras or Arcia seemed adequately prepared for the sacrifice, perhaps because it’s not a move the Braves practice very often.

Unsurprisingly, the next time Atlanta found themselves in this situation, they eschewed the bunt. On July 10 against the Nationals, the Braves came up three times with the designated runner on base (in the 10th, 11th, and 12th innings) and never attempted a sacrifice.

July 2 at the Reds

Six weeks after their first bunt, Atlanta got brave again. This time the batter was Matt Olson, who came to the plate in the top of the first inning with a runner on. This wasn’t a textbook bunt attempt – at least on the surface. How often do three-hole hitters bunt in this day and age, especially in the first inning of a scoreless ballgame?

At that point in the season, Olson was batting .252/.346/.477 with 12 home runs and a 126 wRC+. Over the few weeks prior he had been on a roll, hitting .280 with four homers, seven doubles, and a 164 wRC+. Moreover, he was facing a right-handed pitcher, giving him the platoon advantage, and the game was at Great American Ballpark, one of the most hitter-friendly stadiums in the league. In other words, the Braves had one of their best hitters at the plate in a very hitter-friendly situation. With a runner on a first and only one out, he was in a strong position to help his team take an early lead. Instead, he bunted into a double play.

While Olson’s choice seems befuddling, especially considering the outcome, there was a method to his madness. The Reds were deploying an extreme shift against him, the kind that certainly won’t be legal next season. Three infielders stood on the right side of the diamond, and even Kyle Farmer, the lone fielder on the left side, was quite close to second base. Had Olson successfully bunted down the third base line, he would have had an easy base hit and his opponents might not have felt quite as comfortable using such a dramatic shift against him. Done right, it could have benefited Olson in the short- and long-term.

But pulling it off was easier said than done. The first baseman smacked his bunt a bit too hard, and it went right to the pitcher, allowing Cincinnati to turn two.

Olson has been shifted on in many subsequent plate appearances. Indeed, he deals with the shift more often than not. Yet he has seemingly given up on bunting to beat the shift. Presumably, he and his coaching staff have decided it’s not worth it. The best way for a hitter like Olson to beat the shift is to rely on his power, and that’s exactly what he has done.

July 29 vs. the Diamondbacks

Finally, success! Well, for the most part.

Star rookie Michael Harris II came to bat in the bottom of the fifth with Madison Bumgarner on the mound. Harris didn’t hit as well in July as he had in June, and he was struggling terribly against left-handers. With no outs, no one on, and the Braves already up by two, the timing was right for Harris to bunt against the southpaw Bumgarner. The young center fielder can run like the wind, and third baseman Josh Rojas was playing quite far out.

Unfortunately, Harris was a little too eager following his first big league bunt hit. As the throw from catcher Carson Kelly went past first baseman Christian Walker into right field, Harris took off for second, where he was nabbed on a strong throw by Daulton Varsho. Technically it was a successful bunt hit, but as with every other Braves bunt this season, the play ended in an out.

It’s not a play you’ll see repeated all that often, because Harris is too talented a hitter and too big a power threat to waste a plate appearance on a bunt. Even against left-handed pitchers, whom he still struggles against, it is more important for him to practice getting his swings in than resign himself to bunting. Nevertheless, the bunt made enough sense in this particular situation, and Harris pulled it off. Kind of.

September 21 vs. the Nationals

Nearly two months after their last bunt, Atlanta finally tried again. Eddie Rosario batted lead off in the Braves’ half of the second. The outfielder was swinging a hot bat heading into the game, and he had the platoon advantage against Nationals starter Paolo Espino. Nevertheless, he set up for a bunt. Similar to Olson, he was trying to avoid the extreme shift the Nationals were fielding against him.

Alas, Rosario’s bunt attempt was also quite similar to Olson’s. He hit the ball too hard right at the pitcher and was easily thrown out at first. Rosario isn’t a particularly fast runner, nor is he known for his propensity for bunt hits. He needed a well-placed bunt in order to reach base safely, and he failed to execute.

Each time the Atlanta Braves bunted this season, they did so with good reason. But while their reasoning was sound, their execution left much to be desired. Four bunts ended in five outs.

The Braves clearly don’t waste much time thinking about their bunts. And that’s okay! Bunting has faded from prominence in the modern game, and Atlanta is proof positive that a team can have a great offense without ever laying one down. Still, if bunting is so insignificant in Atlanta, I can’t help but wonder if they should forswear the practice entirely. Bunting is a skill, not just a strategy. A sacrifice requires more than bravery – you have to know what you’re doing, too.

Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgenstenmlb.

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4 months ago

Super-fun article; thanks!