Mark Teixeira‘s recent statement that he may consider bunting more this season against the shift has unsurprisingly sparked a diverse array of reactions around the blogosphere. These include assertions that the Yankees didn’t give him a huge contract to bunt, and that he should instead focus on hitting the ball to the opposite field with the shift on. Of course, there were the always-insightful commentaries that bunts are always bad in every circumstance (note, sarcasm). Plus, there are concerns that by bunting into the shift, Teixeira would be giving up his strongest tool, his home run power, thereby playing into the opposition’s strategy.
Considering Teixeira’s subpar 2011 season, especially against righties, it is understandable that he would be looking to change his approach when facing the shift. But should he adopt the bunting strategy? There has been some great work on this subject already, both on this site and elsewhere, but I wanted to give another perspective on the issue, especially looking at how successful of a bunter Teixeira would have to be for the strategy to be worth pursuing.
By the eye test, Teixeira has struggled against the shift over the last 2 seasons, and especially in 2011. Looking at the numbers seemed to confirm the eye test, as Teixeria’s numbers with the bases empty (when teams would presumably employ the shift) were significantly worse than his numbers with runners on, both in 2011 and 2010. Unfortunately, the Fangraphs data I was looking at cannot separate at-bats with the bases empty while batting left-handed (only one or the other), so it is possible that some of the struggles with bases empty could be due to reasons other than the shift. However, since Teixeira had many more lefty AB’s than righty AB’s, I am going to assume that the overall effect is likely true in his left-handed AB’s.
In 2011, Teixeira’s production with runners on base was actually better than his career numbers, as he posted a .289/.385/.601 line, good for a .412 wOBA. With the bases empty it was a different story entirely, as he batted .215/.302/.408, or a meager .315 wOBA. 2010 told a similar story statistically, suggesting that this wasn’t just a 1-year anomaly. In 2009, his numbers with the bases empty were actually better than his numbers with runners on, though if I recall correctly the shift wasn’t used as often against Tex until 2010.
Now that we know how bad Mark has been with the bases empty over the last two years, how good would he have to be at bunting to make it worth his while? For our purposes, I’ll consider a successful bunting outcome to be a single. A walk would also be a successful outcome, but for the purpose of this calculation, I am going to assume that while bunting Teixeira would be unlikely to walk.
According to Tom Tango, a single has a wOBA run value of 0.90. Consequently, for Teixeira to reach the same level of production with the bases empty as he did in 2011, he would only need to be successful on 35 percent of his bunts (0.9 x 0.35=.315, Tex’s 2011 wOBA with the bases empty), assuming he didn’t draw any walks while he bunted. If you assume that Teixeira will still draw some walks while bunting, then the threshold for success is even lower.
It seems reasonable to assume that even if Mark Teixeira work all offseason at bunting against the shift, it is likely that he will never be a great bunter due to his slow foot speed and lack of bunting experience. However, as my above calculation indicates, he doesn’t need to be an incredibly effective bunter against the shift for his offensive production in those situations to be better than the low bar he set in 2011 or 2010. Teixeira would certainly fail at bunting fairly often, resulting in some frustrating pop-ups, strikeouts, or weak dribblers to the pitcher. However, if he becomes just good enough to reach that 35% break-even point, then perhaps it could be worth bunting against the shift on a regular basis.
There are certainly some problems with this analysis that I want to acknowledge. First, if you assume that Mark Teixeira is capable of performing better than he did against the shift in 2010-11, then the break-even point for bunting becomes higher. As mentioned previously, the limitations in the available data (or my ability to find the right data) prevented me from separating his bases-empty splits batting lefty and righty. Teams wouldn’t shift for Teixeira when he was batting right-handed, so I did end up including some non-shift AB’s. However, if he performed at his usual level batting righty with the bases empty, then that would indicate that his performance batting lefty with nobody on was even worse than the .315 combined wOBA he posted. This would in turn lower the break-even point for bunting.
Finally, if Teixeira begins to have success with the bunt, teams will likely adjust to take that option away, so his success rate would likely go down over time. But this is not necessarily a bad outcome, indeed far from it. That is exactly the goal of utilizing the bunt in this situation. Tex is not trying to regularly bunt for hits every time he comes to the plate. Instead, the point of the strategy is to make teams aware of the possibility so they are forced to play their defense in a different alignment. This in turn will open up the right side of the infield, allowing Teixeira to pull the ball with more success while batting lefty. Of course, Tex could always make this whole discussion moot and learn how to hit to the opposite field again, but I’m not sure that’s an exceptionally likely outcome at this stage of his career.
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