Bunting With the Devil

There has been much ado over Bryce Harper‘s bunt in last night’s game against the New York Mets — a bunt that came with runners on first and second with no outs, in the eighth inning, with the Washington Nationals down by two runs. Much ado over the notion that Harper would resort to a sacrifice bunt, despite the notion that the situation was in his favour to take a mighty hack or two, as he is wont to do. Also much ado over the underlying theme that Harper’s struggles against left-handed pitching has left him to a last resort to put together a good at-bat — to bunt.

To bunt against Scott Rice, a journeyman rookie who, while admittedly not a comfortable at-bat for a lefty due to his arm slot and quirky delivery, is still Scott Rice, journeyman rookie LOOGY.

While many have lauded the play as a smart move, and one that shows his fastidious and superior baseball IQ, many haven’t:

I will admit that I am in the always occasionally annoying and vocal crowd that doesn’t really like the bunt overall as a smart play, I do admit that there are occasions where a bunt is a good idea; however, I do feel that it is used way too often and those occasions where it is warranted are few and far between.

Is letting one of your most productive hitters — ranked first on the team in ISO, second in wOBA and wRC+ — bunt on his own in such a situation ever a good idea?

What would you say if it was Andrew McCutchen? Carlos Gonzalez? Jose Bautista? Would that change your mind? I bring these players up because of their comparable aforementioned stats to Harper — ISO, wOBA, wRC+ — what sort of environment would you see either of those players being in, where the best alternative for them to generate a scoring opportunity was to bunt with no outs?

Let’s talk about environment for a bit. Without a doubt, the game environment is a crucial piece to this puzzle and one that Adam Kilgore, the author of the link above, admits to.  With the help of Fangraphs, here’s a table that lays out the situations at hand for each of Harper’s bunts for 2013; LI is leverage index and is a measure of the importance of the situation and WPA is win probability added, a statistic that measures how much a particular play affects a team’s chances of winning. A play with a LI over one is considered a play with high importance, while a positive WPA is good and provides some sort of benefit to a team’s win. I have also included score, inning, out state as well as the pitcher’s handedness:

Date Score Inning Out Runners LI WPA Pitcher
05/21/13 0-0 T1 0 1– 1.57 -0.015 R
05/21/13 1-2 T8 0 -2- 1.05 -0.002 L
07/02/13 0-0 B6 0 0 1.31 -0.032 R
08/10/13 4-4 B7 1 1-3 4.25 0.046 L
09/01/13 3-5 B8 0 12- 4.38 -0.023 L

…and the same thing, this time for 2012:

Date Score Inning Out Runners LI WPA Pitcher
05/06/12 1-3 B6 0 0 1.35 -0.033 L
06/12/12 1-4 T8 0 0 0.52 0.019 L
07/03/12 2-0 B3 0 0 0.58 -0.014 R
08/14/12 1-0 T4 1 1– 2.09 0.080 L
08/20/12 4-4 B7 0 -2- 1.94 -0.005 L
09/12/12 0-1 T7 0 12- 1.76 0.004 R

…and two more tables the first being for 2013, the second for 2012, just averaging and summing things up for lefty versus righty pitchers.


Runners, Total LI, Avg WPA, Avg
All 6 2.51 -0.01
L 1 3.23 0.01
R 5 1.44 -0.02


Runners, Total LI, Avg WPA, Avg
All 4 1.37 0.01
L 2 1.48 0.02
R 2 1.17 -0.01

So what do these four tables tell us? Quite a lot, actually. Here are some quick hit bullet points:

  • Harper in 2013 is bunting with more runners on base, especially against lefties
  • Harper in 2013 is more likely to bunt in later innings as compared to 2012
  • The difference in leverage situation for lefties is HUGE and has grown in 2013
  • While it is a small difference, Harper *is* providing a positive WPA when bunting on lefties
  • In general, Harper’s bunts don’t bring much to the table (very low WPA) in high leverage situations

So we have a good idea of when Harper is likely to bunt — late in the game, either tied or losing, in a high leverage situation, normally with a lefty on the mound. Just to tie things together somewhat nicely, let’s describe Harper’s lack of success against lefties thus far in 2013:

vs L 131 21 9 2 12 14.5% 23.7% 0.196
Home vs L 62 9 0 2 6 16.1% 25.8% 0.180
Away vs L 69 12 9 8 6 13.0% 21.7% 0.211
High Leverage 31 4 2 14 9 12.9% 32.3% 0.167

One note — High Leverage here is against both lefties and righties, but adds context to the LI numbers seen previously. In general, Harper hasn’t done much production-wise in high leverage situations in 2013, regardless of who is throwing.

So where does that leave us? Where does that leave Harper? It leaves him and the Nats in a tough situation; when environment is taken into consideration, one of the their top hitters (and one of the NL’s top hitters to be exact) feels that his only resort against lefties is to square around and take one for the team and let a teammate pick him up.

It also leads to this:

Screen shot 2013-09-02 at 11.10.12 AM

The two highest leverage at bats for Harper in 2013 have come this past weekend, both against Scott Rice, both in the bottom of the eighth with runners on first and second, losing to the Mets. While both were ‘bad’ plays — both provided negative WPA — they had different results.

With one, Harper’s hustle was questioned in a loss, as he jogged to first after a weakly hit grounder. The other, a bunt in a situation that hardly ever calls for one, led to a runner scoring and eventually to a win.

While this isn’t the way most expected Harper to contribute to the offensive success of the team, right now, this is about as good as it gets for him against lefties in high leverage situations. In a September for a team fighting for a wild card spot, all of the remaining games become crucial, and the parade of lefties coming out of the bullpen to face Harper will only grow in size. Does Harper keep bunting, dancing with the alluring devil that has ever so briefly shown the bunt to be a good idea?

When you dance with the devil, you have to expect to get burnt; do the flames engulf the Nats chances of a playoff berth in the process?


All stats courtesy of Fangraphs

One comment

  1. Stephanie

    Worth noting that the game where he a) bunted in the first inning with no one on base and b) bunted twice in one game (!) came one week after he ran into the wall in LA, and just a few days before he went on the DL. Someone was hurt, even if he didn’t want to admit it and tried to play through it…

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