Potentially part of a series, if this interests people.
When Prince Fielder bats, particularly with nobody on base, he faces a shift like this:
This type of shift leaves the entire left side of the infield open – almost surely, any bunt attempt which stayed fair and cleared the pitcher would result in a base hit, despite Prince Fielder’s lack of speed. Let’s take a preliminary look at this, and if people are interested in going more in depth, we can do so in a future post.
With bases empty, here are the percentages of the following events occurring in Prince Fielder’s career.
1B 2B 3B HR BB ROE HBP OUT
.129 .058 .003 .062 .104 .007 .015 .622
With 0 out and bases empty, that means that the average run expectancy after a Fielder at-bat is .566, according to numbers calculated here.. How many hits would Prince Fielder have to get if he attempted a bunt every time in this situation to reach an equal run expectancy? With a runner on first and 0 out, the run expectancy is .932, and with 1 out and nobody on, it is .271. So using the equation
.566 = .932*x + (.271)*(1-x)
and solving for the percentage of successful bunts x, we can find this break even point. The result is x = 44.6% – any success rate above that, and he would be better off bunting every time, any rate below and he should swing every time. At exactly 44.6%, he would be just as well off either way.
With one out, the break even point is 49.8%, and with two outs, the break even point jumps to 65.2%.
This is a very imperfect analysis – it assumes that Fielder would continue to bunt with multiple strikes, and that the defense wouldn’t adjust after a missed first bunt. It uses career stats where it should use projections. It doesn’t take game theory into account. We don’t have full data on Prince against the shift and against a typical defense, nor does it take into account the lineup behind Fielder.
However, this basic analysis serves as a decent starting point. I believe (and will likely test at a later date) that the break even point would actually fall when accounting for missed bunts or in particular bunts pulled back on first pitch balls, as that would simply return Fielder into a hitting position and perhaps could pull the shifted defense back into the more typical defense.
Bunting a major league pitch is decidedly not easy. However, given that all he would have to do is push the ball past the pitcher, Prince’s margin of error increases drastically. I believe that he would be able to succeed more than 45% of the time with 0 outs, and that perhaps this is a strategy he should employ. It’s succeeded on numerous occasions for Ryan Braun, who has much more speed but doesn’t face nearly as drastic of a shift – he simply bunts with the defense playing back. It seems odd to take the bat out of the best power hitter’s hands, but it would be an interesting change of pace that would make defenses and managers rethink how to play against Prince Fielder.