Girardi also believes Brett Gardner should make bunting more a part of his game…
While some derided this as a ridiculous attempt by the manager to tell his high-OBP player to make more outs, I interpreted it as Joe suggesting that Gardner needs to incorporate bunting for hits into his arsenal. Gardner is not a great bunter, and he does not attempt to bunt for hits quite as frequently as his speed would suggest he should. He finished last season with 7 bunt hits (T-15th in MLB), and had a success rate of 36.8%. Of the 23 batters with 7 or more bunt hits, 14 of them were better at it than Gardner, with 6 over 50%. And as anyone who watches the Yankees regularly can tell you, whether he is bunting for a hit or to sacrifice, he is not as good at it as you would expect him to be, given his skill set.
So what benefits would working on his bunting have for Gardner? Firstly, working on his bunting to get his success rate over 40% would make bunting for a hit a legitimate weapon in Gardner’s arsenal. If his rate hovers around his OBP, it may not make sense to attempt to bunt for a hit too often, as he would be sacrificing any chance at extra bases without increasing his ability to reach first base. But if he could push his hit rate closer to that of Adam Jones, Angel Pagan, and Ichiro Suzuki, bunting would become a way for Gardner to increase his likelihood of reaching base. As this work by Lucas Apostoleris shows, hitters like Ichiro, Pagan, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Gregor Blanco have actually increased their value through bunting, and there is no reason that a player with Gardner’s speed shouldn’t be able to approach a similar rate of success.
Even if Gardner is not able to increase his success rate, it may make sense to bunt more often in order to keep fielders off balance. Attempting to bunt for a hit more often will force the defense to alter their positioning accordingly. Being that Gardner is a bit of a slap hitter, pulling the defense in at the corners even just a bit makes it more likely that he squeezes some hard hit liners and groundballs through the infield. Furthermore, with a player of Gardner’s speed, you’d like to keep the defense as confused as possible, as forcing defenders to be in-motion before the play begins and having a burner like Gardner going up the line can cause mistakes by fielders. Considering all of this, while Gardner may give up an extra 5 or so outs over the course of the season due to the greater frequency of bunting, it seems likely that he will earn at least that many extra bases due to the impact this strategy will have on opposing defenses.
In the sabermetric community, bunting is considered taboo in most cases, particularly when it involves sacrificing outs for bases and is done by hitters with any semblance of power. But for a player like Gardner, bunting can be an important weapon that actually serves as a net positive for him at the plate. Joe Girardi is right to say that Gardner needs to incorporate bunting into his game to a greater degree, particularly if Brett can improve his success rate when squaring up. If he does, many fans may find themselves embracing the bunt after many years of dismissing it as a legitimate run producing tool.
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