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Jarrod Dyson and the Lost Art of Bunting for a Hit

Last night in the top of the sixth with Cheslor Cuthbert on first and no one out, Jarrod Dyson bunted. It appeared like Dyson may have been bunting more for a hit than to sacrifice, but I was not overly close to the dirt last night, so that could be in error. In the end, it went down as a sacrifice bunt and despite being moved over to second, Cuthbert was not able to score that inning. We hate the bunt, right? A wasted out. A forfeiture of a plate appearance.

Hey gang, I am on board with the anti-bunt crowd and, truthfully, most of baseball is headed that way as well.

Billy Hamilton currently leads baseball with 28 bunt attempts this season, three ahead of Danny Espinosa. Short of going on a season ending bunt spree, the 2016 league leader in bunt attempts will have one of the lowest total attempts in recent history. Leonys Martin led the league in attempts with 30 in 2013, which was the lowest since 1984. There exists a significant amount of statistical data these days that suggests giving up an out to advance a runner 90 feet is not the best use of a plate appearance in most situations and baseball is more and more taking lessons from advanced statistics. Besides, who wants to bunt when chicks dig the long ball?

In 1995, Brett Butler bunted 95 times. The year after that, he bunted 80 times. In 2003, Juan Pierre attempted 92 bunts and Alex Sanchez 76 (he would go on to bunt another 72 times the next year). In 2008, Carlos Gomez bunted 73 times and collected 30 bunt hits in the process. Going back to Butler’s 1995 campaign, he reaped the benefits of 42 bunt hits that year, managing to bunt for a hit 44 percent of the time he laid one down. In fact, Butler collected 19 or more bunt hits in every season between 1988 and 1995 and in his worst year, converted 32.5 percent of his bunt attempts into hits.

Butler was, of course, an extreme case in his ability to bunt. He bunted a ton, but also had some occasional thump in his bat (Alcides Escobar-ish type slugging) and could also work a walk at a decent rate. From 1985 to 1997, Butler had a BABIP of .300 or better every year despite a line drive percentage that exceeded 20% just once. Over his career, Brett bunted in 7.7 percent of his plate appearances and legged out a hit in 40.8 percent of those bunts.

A player with a similar penchant for bunting over a similarly long period of time was Juan Pierre. Between 2001 and 2012, Pierre bunted at least 31 times each season, and eight different times bunted 50 or more times. Over that time frame, Pierre bunted 637 times and collected 194 bunt hits; a 30.5 percent successful hit percentage. He attempted a bunt in 8.7 percent of his plate appearances. During that time, Juan never had a line drive percentage above 20 percent, but had a BABIP over .300 seven times and never was lower than .294. Juan Pierre did not strike out, he did not walk much, he had zero power. Pierre finished his career with an on-base percentage of .343.

Let’s throw another player into the mix: Otis Nixon. He bunted in 8.6 percent of his plate appearances and converted bunts into hits 39.7 percent of the time.  He had similar walk and strikeout rates to Butler, less power and completed his long career with the same on-base percentage as Juan Pierre. In 1991 with the Braves, Nixon bunted 53 times (11.5 percent of his PA’s), got 23 bunt hits (43.4 percent) and was on-base at a .371 clip.

We should make an obligatory nod at this point to Willy Taveras, who had 37 bunt hits in 2007 (an amazing 62.7 percent rate of converting bunts into hits) and Alex Sanchez (who collected 61 bunt hits during the 2003 and 2004 seasons and attempted a bunt in 20.5 percent of his total plate appearances in 2004). Those two guys, in addition to Butler, Nixon and Pierre collectively hold 13 of the 18 seasons since 1950 where a player has been credited with 22 or more bunt hits. The other five you ask? Kenny Lofton, Carlos Gomez (and young and so annoying Carlos), Nellie Fox (1954) and Del Unser (23 bunt hits in just 37 bunts in 1971).

Fun fact:  Del Unser’s dad was named Al Unser, but is, obviously, not THAT Al Unser.  

Now, if you are still paying attention, that super-fast Billy Hamilton is not among the most prolific collectors of bunt hits. Hamilton’s 15 bunt hits in 2014 is just 115th best since 1950. There is more to bunting for a hit than turning the bat sideways and running fast. Dee Gordon is pretty good at it, collecting 20 bunt hits (51 total bunts) in 2014 and 16 more last season (38 bunts). Jarrod Dyson was seemingly good at it once, but has not been recently.

And THERE AT LAST, is the point of these words!

I look at Jarrod Dyson this season, who has played almost exclusively against right handed pitching and hit .262/.329/.360.  He has bunted 18 times and managed just 3 bunt hits (7 sacrifices) after going just 2 for 16 in 2015. We could write that off as Jarrod is not a good bunter, but between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Dyson bunted 41 times and got 20 bunt hits along with being credited with 9 sacrifice bunts. What’s changed?

In my mind, it felt like Dyson was bunting less, but the percentages of bunts to plate appearances is not dramatically different over the past five seasons. He has been bunting less effectively the past two years. Is it the defense? Is it the mindset of bunting to move the runner versus bunting to get on base? Is it the pitches being thrown? All of it? None of it? Do you know?  If you know, tell me…and please tell Jarrod Dyson.

What if Jarrod Dyson bunted the ball in play at a Juan Pierre-like rate of 8.7 percent of his plate appearances this year instead of 5.9 percent and what if  he converted those bunts into hits at a Nixon-ish 43.4 percent.  That success rate, by the way would be lower than he posted back to back in 2013 and 2014.  Such percentages would yield 11 bunt hits this season for Dyson, 8 more than he has recorded in 2016.  Add 8 more hits to Jarrod Dyson’s average and he is hitting .292 and his on-base percentage is .357. How would those numbers look combined with Dyson’s ability to disrupt on the bases and his ability to play defense?

Of course, that is a whole lot of what if. We are asking Dyson to return to a bunt hit efficiency he has not enjoyed for two seasons and to sustain that efficiency while bunting more often. We have used the assumption that the additional bunt hits were all taken from plate appearances where Dyson made an out and that those additional bunt attempts did not negate any of his productive at-bats, which is certainly not entirely correct.

Even ignoring that, this 1,000 words in search eight stinking hits. How much would you have given for one of those eight to have been with Cheslor Cuthbert and Dyson’s spot in the order up last night?

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