Garret Hampson, Victor Robles, César Hernández, and Joey Gallo. What do these four players have in common? They share the lead in MLB for bunt hits. If you remember the Joey Gallo from years past, you know that this is a huge turnaround. In 2018, this was an extremely viable strategy against Gallo.
Four-outfielder shift vs. lefthanded-hitting, No. 2 hitter Joey Gallo. 3B Bregman in LF again. #Astros pic.twitter.com/9aKpv6PFp3— Brian T. Smith (@ChronBrianSmith) March 29, 2018
Well, I mean that in the sense that there was literally no fear that he would bunt and take the single. Why? I’m sure there was more than one reason, but Gallo said this back in 2018 “I’m sure I’ll try to lay one down here and there, but it’s not like I’ve been a master bunter all my life.”
I get this. Bunting seems easy, but when you’re in the batter’s box, it’s nerve-wracking, and can be harder to do than just swing and make contact if you’re not apt to it. On the other hand, though, if your job is to be a baseball player, then you’re also in position to develop the skill. The mechanics of it are simple. If you’re shifted on as much as Gallo, who currently has the fifth highest shift rate, there is incentive to master the move to free up some of the field for hits. At this moment in time, Gallo has realized the incentive and figured things out.
Back in 2018, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus did a fun mathematical experiment, which tested out the efficacy of Gallo bunting every time against the shift for an entire season. Within that experiment, he found that hitters have very little variation in success rate with getting a bunt into fair territory. No matter how frequently a hitter attempts bunts, they fluctuated between 42-45 percent success rate. Combine that with knowing hitters who bunt against the shift get a hit around 58% of the time, he was able to deduce that Gallo would produce a .470/.470/.470 slash line if he attempted a bunt every at-bat and every pitch.
With that information, Carleton used run values for each offensive event to calculate if Gallo would produce more value with his offensive production from 2017 or if he hit .470 and bunted every time. Given that singles were worth about .45 runs to the 2017 Rangers lineup, Carleton estimated bunting Gallo would have been worth about 38 runs. Compared to the 19 runs that Gallo produced in reality, that is a significant improvement. Obviously, there are many caveats since fielders would change their choices and pretty much no factors can be controlled for. However, Carleton’s math does show one key thing; Gallo needed to bunt more. Even if he was a below average bunter, the math shows clearly it would be worth it.
Fast forward to 2021, and we know that Gallo is a much better hitter now. FanGraphs says he’s produced 22.4 runs of value already this year and will end up around 30 when it’s all said and done. If a single is still worth about .45 runs, then he’s created about 2.25 runs from his bunt singles. We cannot possibly expect Gallo to do better with his bunting, considering he’s has gone five for seven thus far. His success rate has been 100% too, as all his bunt attempts have gone fair, according to Baseball Savant. Turns out, he’s become a very good bunter! That may have taken some time, but his form is near perfect.
Joey Gallo bunt single. Guy is good at this sport pic.twitter.com/qkS8hg1gA0— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) August 15, 2021
It’s wonderful to see the union of analytics and old-school baseball, and it’s ironic that the player bringing the two together is the antithesis of old-school baseball. The poster boy of the three-true-outcomes is simultaneously homering, walking, and striking out while does his best job to keep the defense honest and take his bunt hits where he can.
If we zoom in a little more, we can see that five of his attempts this year came in an 0-0 count, one came in a 1-1 count, and another came in an 0-1 count. He only has two home runs in 0-0 counts this year anyway, so it’s not immediately apparent that he is forgoing home runs by considering a bunt on the first pitch. Even if he did miss, which he has not yet but inevitably will, he still has chances to go deep afterwards. Basically, I’m saying Gallo could still stand to bunt more, potentially a lot more. Our previous understanding of Gallo’s comfortability with bunting needs to be updated because he very much appears to have developed into at least an average bunter.
Gallo should keep bunting to the point where teams at least consider changing their defensive strategy against him. If they don’t, he just takes the single. It all depends on the situation. The Yankees have enough power hitters in their lineup where they do not need to rely on Gallo alone to bash big home runs any chance he has, like the Rangers did. The value of being on first base may even be higher with the Yankees considering their offense is substantially more talented than the average 2017 Rangers lineup, off whom Carleton based his run value calculations off. It’s extremely interesting. Gallo can continue to steal hits just by dropping one down the line. We know he can do it. He should do it even more.