Last week I wrote a post praising David Ortiz for being creative enough with his plate appearances to combat the defensive formations that teams are fielding against him. In the piece, I linked to another recent post from Tom Tango, who calculated how many bunt singles it would take for a good hitter to recreate his regular production while facing a shifted defense.
He found that if a good hitter is able to lay down a bunt on 80% of the strikes and 30% of the balls he sees, he’s likely to find a 60% success rate, which would raise his wOBA to a Barry Bondsian level by simply bunting for singles. With that in mind, Tango comes to the conclusion that a good batter should look for a bunt single every single time he comes to the plate against a shifted defense, treating the free base as though it’s something of a less certain intentional walk.
It’s a good idea in theory, but in practice, power hitters aren’t willing to give up their chance at hitting a home run for the security of a free base. To this point, Tango again wrote about combatting the shift with bunting this weekend and wondered what might incentivize a slugger to lay down a bunt.
While it’s easy to suggest that improving their team’s likelihood of winning should be all the motivation that’s necessary, power hitters might not actually see it that way. One who does though is Carlos Pena. While his manager, Joe Maddon, often gets credit for implementing practices that might not be in the typical team’s playbook, Pena taking the free(ish) base by bunting toward the unoccupied side of the field is most likely done of his own volition.
Here is his spray chart so far this season in Tampa Bay under Maddon:
We see a number of infield hits up the third base line, and given what’s known about Pena’s foot speed, there’s some safety in assuming that those hits are the result of a fielder not being in position rather than the Rays first baseman running down the line to beat cross diamond throws.
Now, here’s his handiwork from 2011, when Pena was with the Cubs under the rather traditional Mike Quade:
We still see a ton of infield hits to the third base side to go along with his expected power pulls to right field. This amount of infield hits compared to previous years may be evidence of him facing defensive shifts more frequently (playing in the same division as the Milwaukee Brewers last year) or maybe a member of the Chicago Cubs coaching staff encouraged him to lay down a bunt when the defense dares him to.
I prefer to think that Carlos Pena is just a heck of a smart baseball player.
But Maddon is still a genius manager. Batting Pena lead off tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays, a team that has gained a reputation for its active defense this season is pretty much daring the opposition to try to contain his slugger. Shift, and he’ll get on base all night. Don’t shift, and Pena will try to do more damage by pulling the ball.