Did you catch Anthony Rizzo’s bunt single last week?
With the prevalence of extreme shifts against him, Rizzo is routinely facing an infield alignment that has the shortstop playing to the right of second base, the second baseman play between second and first, and the third baseman playing at shortstop – and all of them are very deep. So far, it hasn’t presented Rizzo serious issues (because he’s killing it this year), but it does present us with an interesting discussion point.
With that kind of extreme defensive alignment, if Rizzo can lay down even the most pedestrian of bunts to the left side (it just has to stay away from the pitcher), it’s a hit every single time. No, it isn’t a homer, and maybe it feels cheap, but, until teams respect that possibility, they will continue to do the extreme shift, and will cut down on Rizzo’s BABIP.
You just have to put the threat out there for a while (which could, in turn, reduce the shifting, and allow for more traditional hitting opportunities). To that end, I loved seeing that bunt last week, and I hope Rizzo tries it more when he faces the shift.
Imagine if Rizzo was just 50% successful at bunting for hits when he puts the ball in play – anyone here uninterested in a .500/.500/.500 line from Rizzo in those, typically bases empty, situations? If you think that kind of success level is unrealistic, think again.
Jeff Sullivan concluded that 38% of bunt attempts against the shift wind up in play (that’s 38% of individual bunt attempts – i.e., one pitch), and 25% of those attempts winds up with the player reaching base. In other words, when you get the ball in play on a bunt against the shift, you’re reaching base almost 66%(!) of the time. Of the 62% of attempts that fail, we’re talking about strikes and/or foul balls – not the worst outcome in the world. And it gets that defense thinking.
Incidentally, FanGraphs recently worked up a piece on Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams and this same issue (though he’s not been bunting, just going the other way a lot (which we’ve also seen with Rizzo)). The spotlight is starting to shine on ways to beat the extreme shift.
To be clear: bunting is not as easy as we probably think it should be, but, given the evolution of defensive shifts, lefties* who face extreme shifts routinely would be very well served by practicing bunting with some regularity. I know it’s not what a bopper wants to do, but if it gets you on base? If it softens the shift a little bit in future at bats? It’s worth it, right?
*(It’s quite a bit harder for righties to beat the shift with a bunt, given that the batter would have to bunt to the right side, where, if fielded, the throw is much shorter. In most shifted setups, it wouldn’t be all that hard for the first baseman to field the bunt, and toss to the pitcher covering first. The best bet for the shifted-against righty is to really focus on taking outside pitches the other way.)
Here’s hoping that we see Rizzo do this more frequently if he’s facing the dramatic shift with nobody on. We’ve already seen him shorten his swing and choke up on the bat with two strikes, so he is certainly willing and capable of giving up a little power to try and do the most important thing a batter can do: get on base. The same principle should animate his approach against extreme shifting.