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Bunting for a Hit

December 15, 2011
One of the projects we are working on here at Baseball Info Solutions for The Fielding Bible—Volume III is evaluating the effectiveness of defenders on bunt plays.  We currently have a method that does this, but we are developing a new method that takes into account the location of each bunt.  As every baseball fan knows, the key to an effective bunt is its location.  A bunt right back to the pitcher is pretty useless, whereas a bunt right on the third base line is excellent.  What we can do now is quantify how effective various bunt locations are.
We’ve broken the field into six zones.  We drew a line from home plate through the pitcher’s mound and through second base.  We have three zones to the left of that line and three zones to the right, broken up into equal sizes.  Think of them as pie slices with the center of the pie located at home plate. Zone 1 has all bunts that are along the first base line.  Zone 2 is in the middle of the area between the line we drew through the pitcher’s mound and the first base line, and Zone 3 is the area closest to the pitcher on the first base side.  Zones 4, 5 and 6 are to the left of the pitcher’s mound.  Zone 4 is closest to the pitcher. Zone 5 is between the pitcher and the third base line.  Zone 6 is along the third base line.
Here is a graphical depiction of the zones:
What are the batting averages on bunt attempts in each of these zones?
Before we do that, we have to take one more step.  We have to break this into two different situations, one where the defense is expecting the bunt (sacrifice situations) and one where the defense is not.  When a sacrifice situation was in effect last year (a bunt with men on base and less than two outs) there were 2,285 bunts put into play.  232 resulted in a hit for a .102 "batting average."  On the other hand, there were 850 bunts put into play in a non-sacrifice situation last year, with 372 going for hits, making for a .438 batting average.
We’ve pointed this out before: bunting for a hit in non-sacrifice situations has been an effective strategy for many players since we started tracking this in the early 1990s.  The best bunters hit well over .500 when bunting for a hit.
As in real estate, bunting for a hit is all about location, location, location.  Here are the bunt batting averages in sacrifice situations by zone.
Bunt Batting Averages by Zone, 2011
Sacrifice Situations Only
Zone 1 .149
Zone 2 .094
Zone 3 .032
Zone 4 .026
Zone 5 .134
Zone 6 .291
Overall .102
As we would expect, a bunt down the third base line is best with a .291 batting average.  Bunting back towards the two zones closest to the pitcher get you .032 and .026 batting averages.

Here are the bunt batting averages in non-sacrifice situations by zone.

Batting Average by Zone, 2011
Non-Sacrifice Situations
Zone 1 .246
Zone 2 .412
Zone 3 .164
Zone 4 .139
Zone 5 .520
Zone 6 .720
Overall .438

Again, the third base line is most effective with a .720 batting average.  At a distant second is the middle zone between the pitcher and the third base line at .520.  The next best zone is interesting.  Pushing a bunt towards the second base position nets a .412 batting average.
In the chart above for sacrifice situations, we are counting all bunt attempts in the "batting average". What if we consider a successful sacrifice as no at-bat, just like we do when we compute a normal batting average?  Here are the bunt batting averages by zone in this situation:
Batting Average by Zone, 2011
Sacrifice Situations, SH is not an AB
Zone 1 .591
Zone 2 .437
Zone 3 .140
Zone 4 .075
Zone 5 .482
Zone 6 .743
Overall .375
These numbers are now very similar to bunting for a hit in non-sacrifice situations, except along the first base line where the batting average becomes more than twice what it is in non-sacrifice situations.

COMMENTS (14 Comments, most recent shown first)

Let's remember that these are the batting averages when the bunt is put in play. They don't include the times guys got themselves in an 0-1 or 0-2 hole bunting the ball foul. Maybe guys should bunt for hits more often, and maybe they shouldn't, but this table doesn't give enough information.
6:21 AM Jan 3rd
Well, if a hiiter tried to bunt more for a hit, in a non-sacrificing situation, the element of surprise would dissipate, and those numbers would probably go down.
7:20 PM Dec 29th
P.S. to my post below: Upon further review.... and particularly with the benefit of the opinion of my wife, who knows about as much baseball and more about English than I do, I was probably being captious in mentioning those other factors, because I imagine that John intended "Location" to subsume those things. I do think that it doesn't completely subsume them, but probably enough that I needn't have taken up space with the post below.
8:40 PM Dec 21st
John: I'm surprised you saw fit to say this, at least so flat-out, especially with the "every fan knows," which makes me think I must be either an idiot or a sage :-) because I don't agree with it:

"As every baseball fan knows, the key to an effective bunt is its location."

Actually ('as every fan knows') :-) there are *several* variables -- and I would think that if you want to start with a premise like what you said, you'd need first to try to find out somehow what the proportionate importances are. There are two others that I can think of instantly which might challenge it for importance, and to tell you the truth I wouldn't have known that location is #1. How I'd rank them:

-- Force/speed
-- Location
-- Whether on the ground or in the air

My guess would be that it's close between the first two, and with the third lagging behind -- but with force/speed definitely at least challenging location for #1,
10:23 AM Dec 21st
If they guys who bunt for hits are collectively hitting .438, aren't the obvious conclusions:

1) Most of these guys should be bunting at a higher frequency, since few if any of them have a .438 OBP.
2) If they bunted more frequently, the infielders would eventually adjust their positioning, which would open up more holes when they swing away
3) Probably other players with good speed should consider bunting more often, since the success rate is so high.

7:26 AM Dec 17th
My bad, I misread that no infielder comment.
12:11 PM Dec 16th
I don't think fielders are assigned to zones. The nearest fielder or pitcher usually tries to field the ball and depending on lots of things, that's not always the same fielder for a ball bunted in the same place.
10:53 AM Dec 16th
Which zone(s) is the catcher assigned to?
9:05 AM Dec 16th
Breaking it up by angle is legitimate, as this allows us to not include the fielder into the equation. For "distance", it would depend on how good the fielder (or pitcher) is at reaching the ball.

That said, something akin to what Retrosheet does would also be useful to see (in addition to what's already been done):
8:41 AM Dec 16th
Seems like distance traveled would be a rather important variable. A bunt that is pushed past the pitcher in Zone 4 seems more likely to generate a hit than one that gets near the mound. And something 30 feet from home plate in Zone 4 seems like it'd be in between.
7:32 AM Dec 16th
Steven Goldleaf
How the heck did you make sure you were putting the bunts into the correct zone? Aside from the fact that right in front of home plate there isn't 20 inches separating Zone One from Zone Six, even a few feet further out, the ball could be in one zone, and the feet of the fielder could be in the next zone. In any case, it's pretty much a judgment call, isn't it, which zone some bunts are in, no?
8:03 PM Dec 15th
Yes, thank you for clarifying this, from above:

"We have three zones to the left of that line and three zones to the right, broken up into equal sizes."
4:44 PM Dec 15th
The arcs are the same; by that I mean that the angle between each adjacent pair of lines is the same. You can see by inspection that within the confines of the diamond (i.e., within the lines connecting the bases), the areas in each segment are not the same, because the closer the zones are to the pitcher, the farther away from home the boundaries of the diamond are. Beyond the confines of the diamond the question is not meaningful; I don't think many bunts make it to the outfield. I hope this helps.
4:39 PM Dec 15th
Are the 6 zones equl sizes, or is the arc of each zone equal?
3:51 PM Dec 15th
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