A Perplexing Call: The Leadoff Bunt (Attempt)

 

On Friday May 29th, in the bottom of the 6th inning at Wrigley Field, Anthony Rizzo came to the plate to begin the Chicago Cubs’ turn at bat. He faced Edinson Volquez, staked to a 3-run lead. Volquez was in vintage form up to that point, with nine strikeouts – including Rizzo twice – and only one walk. Volquez threw a 78 mph curveball, that didn’t curve, for ball one and then ball two on high-and-outside cheese at 92 mph.

The Kansas City Royals had, presumably, already put the shift on for Rizzo. The CSN broadcast failed to show it until after Rizzo showed bunt and pulled back on the third pitch of the at bat. They did mention it, but the video only flips to the defense in response to the shown bunt (at about 1:18 in the video). You see the right side with three defenders and Mike Moustakas alone on the left side rushing in. I’m pretty sure this is a “2” shift type according to what I’ve read from Ben Lindbergh over at Baseball Prospectus.

Seeing as that Rizzo was leading off – and thusly no runners on base, duh – I was a bit mystified by this call. First of all, I have no idea if squaring for a bunt show was called by manager Joe Maddon or if Rizzo was acting on his own. Despite the fact that he only showed and then promptly singled into left field to beat the shift two pitches later, I was still curious why one would do that. Now, to be honest, a large portion of my incredulity is informed by seeing the leadoff bunt play called on three occasions, in person, by Lloyd McLendon for the Mariners. That’s even more ridiculous in an American League park. Still, it seemed like nothing more than a decoy play, but I wasn’t sure for what with no runners on base. Beyond the obvious obstruction of Salvador Perez‘s view of the incoming pitch, of course, but that appears to have been incidental.

So, I took to Facebook to inquire amongst my fellow baseball fans why you would do that. I don’t mind admitting that I don’t know everything about baseball. For one, I never played baseball, so there are some aspects of the game I don’t immediately understand or might misinterpret. There was one agreed upon ‘explanation’.

First, a couple of my buddies and fellow Baseball Essential staffer Jeff Snider, consider it potentially a ploy to disrupt Volquez’s rhythm. Conventional wisdom is to take on 2-0, make the pitcher give you something good to hit and don’t fish, especially with a three-run defecit. So, squaring to show bunt could have been a way to do that. Interestingly enough, the pitch was pretty decent, but probably a bit high for Rizzo to decide to turn on. His disruption, mostly of Perez’s sightline, which further disrupted the umpire’s strike zone, resulted in a strike being called a ball. In this way, it totally worked, but then the ump immediately made the make-up call on the next pitch. Snider and my friends also agreed that it seems a usually fruitless call to bunt show to pull the infielders in – regardless of shift/alignment – and then proceed to swing away. To quote my friend Lee, “The specious argument for it is to draw an IF in and then swing away, which has a success rate of 0% above Little League.”

Again, this sequence defies some very logical dudes, as Rizzo did almost exactly that and it paid off; he hit a single to left. Then again, Rizzo’s single was nullified in very short notice when Starlin Castro grounded into a forceout.

Screenshot_2015-06-01-17-24-41

Furthermore, Jeff pointed to the potential to actually be bunting to beat the shift. Rizzo is no slug on the basepaths – he could certainly beat David Ortiz in a foot race to first – but bunting to beat the shift seemed less logical with a big slugger. Also factor in that Mike Moustakas is having an excellent year, defensively, at third base with a 28.7 Ultimate Zone Rating (thanks to FanGraphs) and 5.2 Fielding Runs Above Average (tip of the cap to Baseball Prospectus). Rizzo’s average-to-slightly-above-average speed combined with Moustakas’s glove acumen equals a very slim chance of a bunt infield single in this situation.

Another suspicion I had was why the Royals would want to go into a “2” type shift on Rizzo with no runners on, let alone anybody in scoring position. The mainstream, possibly ill-informed narrative is that Rizzo is just another lumbering, hulking left-handed slugger. Now, I don’t always get a chance to watch Rizzo day-in-day-out, but I thought he was a more complete hitter than a one dimensional pull-heavy slugger. Boy, every once in a while, it’s really nice to be right and receive immediate validation. According to Baseball Reference, Rizzo, who hits .366 to his pull side also hits .314 up the middle and .317 the opposite way. Sure, the slugging percentage slips from pull-to-middle-to-opposite at .753, .528, and .452, respectively, but this doesn’t seem to indicate the immense need for the shift here. Here’s Rizzo’s spray chart for the 2015 season, thanks to FanGraphs again!


Source: FanGraphs

It would appear that Rizzo’s biggest pull tendency is when the ball ends up in the bleachers. Logic therefore dictates that employing the shift on Rizzo, in this situation, still isn’t that smart on the part of the Royals. If he beats the shift with a homer, then it was a wasted effort. In other words, he’s most likely to hit “into” the direction of the shift when hitting it into some North Sider’s extra large beer cup. Yes, I noticed his pull tendencies on ground balls. However, I would assume that most regular defensive alignments for an infield with all 4 players possessing + UZRs could cover a Rizzo batted ball on the ground to the pull side.

To be clear, I am not some old-school, curmudgeonly baseball fan who ignorantly bemoans the use of defensive shifts. I do believe that there are instances that they are not being employed at the right time or in the right situation. Even a quick glance at Rizzo’s slash lines in two of the count situations help to back that up. Remember that the Royals “2” type shift was on for both counts I’m looking at. On 2-0, when Rizzo showed bunt, he’s a career .395/.426/.884 hitter. More importantly, on 3-2, when he lined into left, he’s at .227/.474/.387. Obviously, any hitter’s average dips in a 3-2 count situation. It’s effectively imminent. The OPS, on the other hand, is .861, which is above league average. That means he’s still a viable threat to be on base. He’s less likely to do major damage, but he’d be on base. This only increases the possibility of scoring a run (or runs) and that wouldn’t be to the benefit of the Royals in this particular situation. Essentially, I’m saying that this at bat was the wrong time to put on the shift against Rizzo.

It’s too bad for Cubs fans that he wasn’t still on base when Jorge Soler homered later in the inning.

Then again, Rizzo hits .400/.455/.600 off Volquez. So maybe you walk him and hope that Castro at least still hits into the forceout, if not into a double play. And if the same sequence of events happened and Miguel Montero flies out, then you’ve just had a three-up-three-down inning and avoided all of the damage that actually occurred.

Of quite interesting note, this is one of those beautiful moments where, arguably, neither team made the right decision. Even more fascinating is that positive results were still attained – Rizzo was erased on the forceout and Soler’s two-run dinger – for both teams.

Hopefully, there will be time to further investigate this turn of events – as I didn’t even get into the percentages of bunting to beat the shift or the advantages of the play – or one like it. I’m sure there will be. And thank you, my esteemed readers, for hanging with me on what is basically one big “what if” thought experiment and analysis.

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