Three winters ago, after a disastrous second half cost him the 2014 rookie of the year award, Billy Hamilton had a plan: bunt for hits. The sport's fastest man told Mark Sheldon of MLB.com that he blamed himself for not bunting more, and things were going to change.
He spent the offseason in Georgia working with Delino DeShields -- a retired bunter, the father of an excellent bunter and these days a roving bunting instructor. Hamilton's manager was happy, because his manager wanted him to bunt more. We were all happy, because when Hamilton bunted in 2014 -- he did so 44 times, excluding sacrifice bunts -- he frequently reached, batting .340 on those bunt attempts. And Billy Hamilton on first base is fun.
So here's what happened:
2014: 15 bunt base hits on 44 non-sacrifice bunts*
2015: 12 bunt hits on 29 bunts
2016: 7 bunt hits on 17 bunts
2017: 4 bunt hits on 19 bunts
* Those bunt attempts include "broken" sacrifice attempts. And the hits might include sacrifice attempts that went so well Hamilton turned them into hits. There's an ambiguity about intent with bunts sometimes, which makes success rates hard to really judge. Some writers have focused only on bunts with bases empty, which is probably smart for a certain type of analysis. For our purposes here, we're keeping it simpler. Unless otherwise noted, "bunt hits" means all bunts that resulted in hits. Bunt attempts means all bunt attempts, minus successful sacrifices.
Hamilton's plan might have run into some headwinds. While he wanted to bunt more, the league wants to bunt less -- not just for sacrifices (as is well documented), but lately even for hits. Indeed, the bunt single (at least as you think you know it) is rapidly disappearing.
In 2017, bunt hits were way down. According to Baseball-Reference, there were 421 bunt singles last year, which is the lowest in a full season since at least 1988. Those 421 were 63 fewer -- a 13 percent drop -- from 2016, which was 47 bunt hits down from 2015, which was 36 fewer than in 2014. Bunt hits are down more than 30 percent since the start of this decade. Bunt attempts -- excluding successful sacrifices -- are down almost 40 percent since 2002.
And that probably undersells the changes we're seeing, because that 421 figure is juiced by power hitters bunting against the shift. Our 421 last year included, for instance, six by slugging Cody Bellinger, who finished sixth in baseball in bunt hits. It included four by Marwin Gonzalez, three by Brandon Belt, two by Kyle Schwarber and one by Victor Martinez -- all power hitters laying down anti-shift cover rather than speed and finesse. A total of 55 of our 421 bunt hits were laid down against a fully shifted infield, according to Baseball Info Solutions. (In 2012, when shifts were much less common, there were 22 shift bunt hits, and there were 23 in 2013.)
I'm not the first person to write a panicked eulogy for the lost art of bunting. "Bunting is one of those things people have been saying exactly the same things about for many decades," Rob Neyer wrote of bunt singles in 2013, before a further 25 percent drop in bunt base hits. And it's true that philosophical change has been constant and, cumulatively over decades, substantial. Did you know that Mickey Mantle bunted for 87 singles in his career, and that he apparently would lay down bunts even with two strikes? Did you know that Roger Maris bunted for three singles during his home run chase, including one on Sept. 7, when he was only five home runs behind the Babe? For that matter, did you know that Ruth was credited with 10 bunt singles after 1930, at which point he was already 35 years old?
These changing tactics have led to a certain permanent nostalgia. Bunting is, as a concept, incredibly radical, especially because baseball is almost impervious to gimmicky tactics. In almost all cases, the approach to hitting is the same: Make 'em throw strikes; hit it hard somewhere. As a tactician, you can only aspire to do those two things better. But then here comes this totally contrarian idea of doing the exact opposite. It's something straight out of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" (or at least the most commonly cited parts of Sun Tzu's "The Art of War"):
Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.
If your enemy is in superior strength, evade him.
If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him.
Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.
If his forces are united, separate them.
Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.
So, naturally, there's that nostalgia, whether it's strictly merited or not (and usually, mostly not). Way back in 1991, Newsday mourned the scarcity of bunt singles. "The bunting game has kind of been pushed aside because of the numbers guys could put on the board by swinging a bat. So bunting is kind of a lost art," Tony Gwynn said at the time. But the very next year, veteran Brett Butler set an all-time record with 42 bunt hits, while rookie Kenny Lofton set the American League record with 32. (That we know of, at least. The further back we go, the less reliable the data.)
Indeed, Butler and Lofton led a fairly bunt-stable era. While baseball might have moved past having Mickey Mantle laying down bunts -- "Mantle bunted more than anyone on the team except me," Phil Rizzuto once said, which sounds crazy -- it certainly didn't move past bunting. According to Baseball Prospectus, the 10 best bunting seasons ever (by bunt base hits) have all come since 1990.
But none has come in the past nine years, the nine years since Carlos Gomez reached 30 times and Willy Taveras 22 times, in 2008. Since then, only Dee Gordon has reached 20 times (in 2014), tying him with Butler's fifth-best season.
So is this just the latest article about how kids don't learn to bunt for hits anymore, or has something changed? I've got two contradictory hypotheses.
The first is that this is a function of offense going up. Over the past three decades, the prevalence of bunt singles has closely opposed the prevalence of home runs. Bunt singles dropped by about 20 percent when the offensive era began in 1993, and they reached their pre-2017 nadir in 2000, which was (probably not coincidentally) the highest-scoring, highest-homer year in the recent modern era. Bunt singles became more frequent in 2010 and 2011, the first two years in almost two decades to see home runs drop below one per game. And once the home run came back in mid-2015, the current collapse began.
There's a case to be made that every baseball article these days is about the apparently juiced ball, that the outsized rewards of home runs change everything, from player development to coaching to pitch selection to strategy. We don't think of Hamilton as a player who would benefit much from a juiced ball; we don't think of there being a lot of overlap between the players who bunt for base hits and the ones who swing for the fences. Maybe we should. Clearly, the incentive for any action must include the benefits of contrary actions, and even Hamilton and Gordon and Delino DeShields Jr. get more benefit from swinging away when the ball is juiced than when it's not.
In which case, the bunt single will come back, just as soon as the ridiculous home run goes away. And in 25 years, somebody might dig this article up as an example of permanent bunt panic.
But the second hypothesis is that this is actually a function of defenses being better at stymying bunt hits. The sneak bunt is a strategy that, for obvious "Art of War"/game theory reasons, works better the more judiciously it is used. Derek Jeter, according to Baseball-Reference, hit .629 when he bunted in his career. Six twenty-nine! None of us is silly enough to think that means he should have bunted every time, or that if he had, his batting average on bunts wouldn't have gone way down. We might even guess that if he had bunted less often, his batting average on bunts would have gone up.
So what's interesting about the recent drop in bunt-for-hit attempts is that the league's success hasn't gone up. The league hit .398 on bunt attempts last year. In 2016, when the league attempted about 15 percent more bunts, it hit .400. In 2015, when it attempted almost 30 percent more bunts than in 2017, it hit .402. In 2014, when it attempted 35 percent more bunts than in 2017, it hit .405.
(Lest you think the answer is "batters are just lousy bunters now," it's worth noting that missed bunts and foul bunts also were down quite a bit in 2017, according to Statcast data. That's true with bases empty -- so as to exclude sacrifice bunt performance -- as well.)
We might conclude from this, then, that there's a sort of equilibrium that batters can intuit: If they can reach on about 40 percent of their bunt hits (varying from player to player), it's worth giving up the upside of swinging away, and it's worth the extra strikes they might give away on bunts fouled and bunts missed. And from this we might conclude that the league isn't bunting less because it wants to swing away more, but because defenses have made it harder to bunt for hits. Third basemen and catchers are more athletic now, perhaps. Pitchers' high-velocity offerings are harder to lay down, perhaps. Instant replay has made it harder to get close calls ("tie" can't go to the runner if there are no ties), perhaps.
Collectively, then, the reward of a bunt attempt is lower than ever. In which case, this trend might very well only be picking up steam, as defenses get more athletic and pitchers throw harder still and replay cameras get more precise. In which case, we might get to a point five years from now when the only players who bunt for base hits are Bellinger and Martinez.
The evidence is probably a little stronger for the first hypothesis, the one that suggests this is just part of the same old offensive cycle.
But I lean toward the second hypothesis, the one that suggests baseball is moving permanently away from the style of play I grew up watching. Of course, the nostalgic baseball writer almost always does.