Bunting for a Base Hit - Who are the best?
The bunt has fallen on hard times. The reason: giving up an out to advance a runner is statistically a poor tradeoff. For example, with a man on first and no outs, based on historical outcomes, the probability of scoring one or more runs is about 43%. If you sacrifice him to second, the probability of scoring one or more runs with one out, falls slightly to about 41%. So why do the sacrifice bunt?
Similarly, with a man on second and no outs, one or more runs is scored about 62% of the time, again based on historical results. Bunting the runner to third increases that to about 65% of the time so there is some benefit if you are trying to score just one run, say in the bottom of the ninth to win, or a tie game in late innings.
But those statistics reflect overall averages. If the batter is a poor hitter, such as an National League pitcher, a sacrifice bunt makes better sense than trying to hit away. Or maybe it is a bad matchup for that particular hitter against the specific pitcher.
There are a few other circumstances where a sacrifice bunt might still make sense: when facing a very good pitcher, the odds of a successful bunt compared to a base hit, is higher than average. Perhaps in a scoreless game, trying ‘small ball’ to get a run across may be a way to try to get an advantage. Say it is the 8th inning in a scoreless game. Perhaps with runs seeming tough to come by, maybe there is a logic to trying a bunt in a low scoring game.
Overall, the number of sacrifice bunts has dropped significantly, so the statisticians are winning this battle.
Bunting for Base Hit
But what about bunting for a base hit. In my mind, this has almost nothing to do with sacrifice bunts, other than sharing the same bat technique. What is the success rate on attempting to bunt for a hit? Who is good at it? What about using the bunt to beat an infield shift?
The top bunters, for a base hit, in baseball succeed over 70% of the time. Matty Alou, a career .307 hitter, had 90 bunt singles in 123 attempts, at 73.2% success rate, more than twice his overall batting average. Alou had almost 1,800 base hits in his career, making these bunt singles about 5% of his hits. Rod Carew, a career .328 hitter, had 91 bunt singles on 126 attempts, a .722 rate.
The all-time leader in bunt hits is Brett Butler – who played on several teams in the 80’s and 90’s. He had almost 190 bunt singles. He succeeded on about 50% of his bunt attempts, which, while lower than some of the best bunters, still helped him achieve an overall .290 career batting average and represents over 5% of his career hits.
The top 10 list of leaders in bunts is filled with speedy players as you would speculate, including Maury Wills and Vince Coleman in addition to Alou and Carew mentioned above.
But there is one name you would never guess who is number 10 on the all-time bunt hit list. This player is one of the best sluggers in baseball history with over 500 home runs. He won a triple crown. One thing that impresses me is that he used the bunt to defeat the infield shift where most infielders are moved to one side. I wish more players today would try to beat the shift, if not by bunting, at least by hitting the other way.
The player with the 10th most bunt singles to go along with 500+ homeruns is Mickey Mantle. In 1956 Mantle won the triple crown batting .353 with 52 homeruns and 130 RBI (An OPS of 1.169, one of the best single season marks ever). Included in that season were 11 bunt hit with a success rate of 60% - without those bunt hits, he would have finished second to Ted Williams in batting average. There are games where Mantle both bunted and hit a homerun. As you may know, Mantle hit 18 HR’s in the World Series, the current record holder. He apparently also had 7 career bunt hits in the World Series – I could not find out if that makes him the leader. He even had a bunt single in the 1959 all-star game. Amazing!