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To bunt or not to bunt

How do you feel about the small ball?

MLB: AUG 31 Indians at Royals Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In the second inning of last night’s game against the Tigers, the Royals were trailing 2-0 when their first two hitters reached base, bringing up Adalberto Mondesi. Mondi has been off to a sluggish start, batting just .167/.211/.167 going into the game. So on the first pitch, he squared around to bunt. It was a pitch up in the zone that Mondesi bunted a bit too hard right back to pitcher Casey Mize, who was able to throw to second to get Hunter Dozier on a force play at second (upon further review).

Mondesi would steal second to give the Royals runners at second third with a better baserunner at second, but ultimately failed to plate a run when Michael A. Taylor struck out and Nicky Lopez grounded out to end the inning.

In the sixth the game was tied 2-2 when Hunter Dozier led off with a single off reliever Joe Jimenez. After taking a pitch outside, then swinging over a high fastball, Mondesi again squared to bunt. But it was a high fastball and Mondesi popped it up for an easy out for first baseman Spencer Torkelson.

On the broadcast, Ryan Lefebvre would remark it was not the decision to bunt, but the decision to bunt that pitch that was in question. Again, Taylor and Lopez would fail to plate the runner and the game would remain tied until the next inning, when the Tigers would score two to take the lead for good.

After the game, Mike Matheny seemed to indicate Mondesi had decided to bunt on his own.

“Any time [Mondesi] wants to put it down, we’re going to support him,” Matheny said. “We’ve been working with him and talking to him about the importance of trying to get a bunt down when you feel it, when you see it, whether it’s a bad matchup or you see where they are. Any time you can put the bunt down, you know that he’s going to put the pressure on and there’s a good chance they could throw it down the right-field line. It’s always a good play for him.”

The Royals have put six bunts into play, tied with the Nationals for most in baseball. Here is how they played out:

Royals 2022 bunts

Date Opponent Batter Score Inning Runners/outs Result
Date Opponent Batter Score Inning Runners/outs Result
April 7 Cleveland Hunter Dozier 1-1 7th 1st, no outs Force out at 2nd
April 7 Cleveland Nicky Lopez 1-1 8th 1st, no outs Sacrifice, runner to 2nd
April 10 Cleveland Michael Taylor 0-10 3rd none, no outs Infield single
April 11 Cleveland Nicky Lopez 1-4 4th 1st & 2nd, no outs Error on third baseman on attempted force out at 2nd
April 14 Detroit Adalberto Mondesi 0-2 2nd 1st & 2nd, no outs Force out at 2nd
April 14 Detroit Adalberto Mondesi 2-2 6th 1st, no out Pop up out

So we have one true sacrifice, one bunt single, one reach on error, and three outs without moving the runner.

The number of bunted balls - sacrifices and bunt hits - has dropped precipitously in baseball. Last year just 1.3 percent of batted balls were bunts, down from 2.4 percent just ten years ago. There is a wealth of data that shows the average run expectancy decreases with a bunt - that is, giving away an out makes it less likely a team will score a run, even if it advances a runner into scoring position.

That doesn’t necessarily mean hitters should never bunt. As a Northwestern study put it, “Bunting is a more optimal strategy when there is a particularly poor matchup for the hitter, and teams are especially interested in scoring just one run (not adverse to lowering their variance of expected runs)”

Right now, every matchup seems like a poor one for Mondesi, as he has struggled out of the gate. Even going back to last year, he is hitting just .218/.263/.408 in 41 games over the last two seasons combined with a 30.8 percent strikeout rate. You can see the logic of trying to contribute in some fashion, and with his speed maybe he can steal a hit or force the defense to do something stupid - like Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez did on a bunt by Nicky Lopez last week.

On the other hand, even bunts are no sure thing. Jeff Sullivan found in 2014 that when players square around to bunt, they only get it in play about half the time - and since then pitchers are throwing harder with more movement. Mondesi’s decision to try and bunt a high fastball from Jimenez led to a pop up, and he has a split second to try to decide if he should pull the bat back on that. And even when Mondesi gets the bunt down, he has slow-footed runners like Hunter Dozier and Carlos Santana ahead of him, making it easier for opposing defenses to convert a force out and nullify the bunt attempt.

The bunt can be a useful strategy, but teams should be pretty judicious in employing it. Allowing players to make their own decisions on whether to bunt is a good thing - Ned Yost did the same thing and players seemed to love having that autonomy. But teams need to help players to recognize that giving away precious outs can hurt the team’s chances of scoring runs. On 810 WHB this morning, former Royals catcher Mike MacFarlane talked about how when he played in Oakland, the organizational philosophy was much different, saying “that was one of the big no-no’s that they preached about...not giving any free outs.”

In Kansas City, the stance on small ball has been much different, with players seemingly encouraged to lay one done on occasion, steal bases, and run home on contact to put pressure on the defense and make something happen.

The Royals have finished in the bottom three in runs scored in the American League in 26 of their 53 seasons, and are currently fourth from the bottom this year. Perhaps some of that is due to their proclivity to give away outs, or perhaps their stadium and small market lineup necessitate more small ball to steal runs when they can.

What do you think? Should the Royals be playing small ball?