02 March 2015

Should Chris Davis Bunt More to Beat the Shift?

In a mid-February interview on 105.7 The Fan, Chris Davis discussed bunting and beating the shift:
"I think there are definitely situations where I need to bunt, and I know there was some frustration last year obviously with my batting average being as low as it was - not only on my part but the fan base and maybe even on some of my teammates' part - as far as me hitting into the shift . . .  
First of all, when you're not swinging the bat well and you're kind of trying to find it, for me, I want to go up there and have an at-bat. I don't want to just lay a bunt down. There were times last year when I did lay a bunt down, but for me it's really a comfort thing. It's different going out there and working off a machine or even a BP arm and laying balls down the third base line and going into a game and doing it. For me, it was just a comfort thing and I have worked on it this offseason. I've probably worked on it more this offseason than I have in the past. If it's a one-run game, I'm probably not going to lay one down, but there are situations where unselfishly it's probably the best thing to do. It's definitely a weapon I can use against other teams."
Judging by those comments, Davis seems open to bunting more in certain situations. He's also working on his bunting in spring training. Here's proof:
Whether that translates to him bunting more in actual game situations remains to be seen. So this could be something where Davis following through never materializes and it's a lot of talk over nothing.

Davis doesn't want to endure another 94 wRC+ season, and him being an impending free agent could provide some extra motivation. So every little bit (even a few extra singles) matters, but it's worth wondering what "bunt more" means. Should he bunt every time there's a shift? When the stakes are low? When the Orioles could really use a run? Or perhaps just when Buck Showalter wants him to?

Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs examined bunting to beat the shift in two posts last year. You should definitely read both, as with most things Sullivan writes, but here are some of his takeaways after breaking things down:
Bunting is a skill, and as with any skill, there’s a distribution in talent. But what’s made abundantly clear is that nothing about bunting is automatic, even for the most prolific bunters in the league. You’re still trying to bunt a really fast and moving baseball with a stick that isn’t that big. . . .
If the defense wants to give the hitter an easy hit, the hitter should take the easy hit, without question. I could never understand how hitters could be so stubborn in the face of a potentially high batting average. Turns out there’s no such thing as an easy hit after all. Oh, bunt singles against the shift look easy when they’re successful, but so do Chris Davis home runs. Most of the time, Chris Davis doesn’t homer.
In his second post, Sullivan notes, "The math is still probably on the side of more bunt attempts. It’s definitely on the side of hitters practicing bunting more often so that they can be more successful when it counts." So Davis is preparing to bunt more often, even if he ends up not showcasing his newfound bunting skills much.

In 2014, only nine major leaguers faced more defensive shifts than Davis. Here are the number of times they bunted the ball fair, with the results in parentheses:

David Ortiz: 0
Ryan Howard: 0
Brian McCann: 3 (1 hit, 2 outs)
Albert Pujols: 0
Brandon Moss: 3 (2 hits, 1 out)
Lucas Duda: 1 (hit)
Mark Teixeira: 0
Adam LaRoche: 1 (hit)
Mike Moustakas: 2 (1 sacrifice, 1 out)
Chris Davis: 2 (1 hit, 1 sacrifice)

Also, here is Davis's bunt single, which also happens to be his only career bunt base hit:

Just because other players who face shifts often rarely bunt doesn't mean Davis shouldn't; perhaps he could even transform into a bunting trendsetter for similar sluggers. But it's extremely unlikely that he's going to start racking up bunt hits, not only because it's difficult, but also because it's more important that he hit the ball out of the ballpark.

Teams are willing to give up the occasional single to Davis. But they also don't think he'll be able to consistently bunt balls down the third-base line (or maybe even the first-base line) for hits. And they're probably right.

So yes, it probably would be smart for Davis to try to lay down a few more bunts in the future. Teams are not going to stop employing shifts against him unless he consistently starts spraying the ball all over the field, and that's not going to happen. The more hits, the better; but he's also not going to be successful on every bunt attempt, and he will make outs. Regardless, Davis's offensive success will be determined by whether he gets his power numbers back up, cuts down on strikeouts, makes better contact, and isn't nearly as bad against offspeed pitches (.051 ISO in 2014 vs. career .230). An open philosophy to bunting could help his overall numbers by some measure, but it's far from a panacea. Still, there's nothing wrong with being prepared.

Photo: Keith Allison


Unknown said...

One key point which I think wasn't emphasized enough in this article is that Davis should choose the right situations. Eighth inning, down three runs, leading off the inning - by all means Davis should bunt to try to get on base. Tie game, two outs, no one on base - Davis should try for the home run.

DFO1 said...

So five of the six that attempted to bunt to beat the shift raised their batting average in doing so? Hmm.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I thought the more interesting thing was that they didn't attempt many bunts at all.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

The point being, you're probably not going to judge Chris Davis's season any more positively if he adds a couple of bunt singles. But sure, it could help.

Anonymous said...

Maybe, he should stop trying to be a pull hitter. As I recall, he hit a bunch of those 53 home runs to left in '13. Seemed to be driving the ball that way.

Bizarro Tim said...

Davis should learn how to catch, so that his bat is less important.

ifsteve said...

So for those who actually bunted they did so for an average of .600!!!! Taking out the sacs they were 6 for 10.

Sure you have to pick the right spots but I believe he should bunt....and often....

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I see no reason why he shouldn't at least bunt a bit more. For the most part, if he gets the ball down right, he could add a few hits. But that sample I included is pretty small, so I'm not sure it says a whole lot other than sluggers don't drop down bunts much. Maybe they should a bit more. It could possibly help, at least a little.

Anonymous said...

As opposed to bunting, rather see the hitter just "inside out" the ball down the line.

As mentioned, bunting is a skill some have, acquire or never learn or embrace. Bunting requires two things that scare me. Legging out a hit (hamstring, foot injuries) and the potential to get hit on the hand laying down the bunt when you dont really have the underlying skill to do so.

As for Chris to change his and the other team's behavior he is going to have bunt ten times on his own during the season. Looking at the stats just presented those bunts are meaningless.

Its going to take a modified hitting approach by Chris to possibly attack the shift. Is he willing to look outer half and "slap" pitches to left early in the season to change team's shift defense? I dont know that Chris is and can ever be that kind of hitter. Few are. I suspect, he will just rely on what has worked for him in the past and see if he has better luck and better contact.