Outs matter. Outs are everything, the currency and the clock of baseball. Get the other team to make them, and you win. Make them yourself, and you lose.
A team that makes no outs scores an infinite number of runs.
That’s the basic theory underpinning the modern baseball enlightenment, one that finally began to value on-base percentage properly, in that it’s really Not-Out Percentage. A lineup filled with higher rates of not being out will be a high-scoring one, indeed. The secondary, cumulative effects of this matter, too, since there is a finite number of pitches available from each starter and reliever each day. The longer innings grind on, the greater the opportunity is to affect more than just the current game.
As part of this newer understanding of something so obvious, it makes sense that bunting has been on the decline. Managers have finally realized that giving away an out on purpose almost never makes sense. The calculation is complicated by the silliness of pitchers still hitting in the National League, certainly, but the growing awareness is clearer than ever.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal Monday, the process has accelerated notably already in the early stages of the 2016 season.
From 1997 to 2011, the number of non-pitcher plate appearances per bunt remained relatively steady, fluctuating between 160 and 200. Then, in 2012, the arrow began to point upward, with the number climbing steadily each year, to a new high of 250 set in 2015.
This year the rate has spiked to 337, indicating a widespread appreciation of the importance of not making outs by choice. That equates roughly to position players bunting only once every nine games, according to the report.
The decline in stolen bases reflects this thinking too, since teams more intelligently evaluate the risk/reward of making an out and erasing a scoring opportunity versus moving up one base. Unless there is a 75 percent chance of it working, it’s probably better not to try.
A slow and proper extinction of the bunt will likely feed on itself given the practice needed to do it effectively. Even now Major League hitters look ridiculous trying to bunt because of how rarely they were asked to on their way up. High school and youth coaches may continue to bunt, but the logic will eventually filter down. Pitchers work on it it more than anybody else at the game’s highest level. Still most observers feel the designated hitter will soon be standard in both leagues, eliminating that need completely.
The bunt could be kept alive to combat drastic defensive infield shifts. When large areas of the field are vacated to cover the shaded spaces of a hitter’s spray-chart, that creates opportunities for easy hits. A bunt would be an active attempt to get on base, rather than a giveaway.
Data from a 2014 Fangraphs.com study suggests that success in this situation is so unlikely as to not be worth trying. It looks great when it works, perhaps. But they concluded that in these situations “It seems like bunting should be a walk in the park. The evidence suggests it’s very much not.”
So count that as another strike against it, with the bunt itself closer and closer each year to being out.