Ichiro bunts for a base hit. He was pretty good, but he was no Lee Mazilli. - Elsa
Few things are more exciting to watch than the drag bunt down the third base line from a speedy left-handed hitter, or a bunt so precisely laid that it perfectly splits the on-rushing infielders. Let's take a look at baseball's most prodigious bunters with the bases empty.
The 'Sacrifice Bunt' has become this sort of tired and played-out point of contention between the old and new schools of baseball, and it really is a shame because all the hullabaloo distracts from what is undoubtedly one of the more beautiful events of the game-- the bunt for a hit.
It really is a gorgeous spectacle, and it is not always simply an exhibition of outstanding speed and bat control. With the recent rise of the defensive shift, we've even been blessed with a new form of bunt-- the shift-killer. Whatever the method used, I'd like to pay tribute to those who excelled at it, and ridicule those who embarrassed themselves when attempting to harness its wonder.
In order to do this, I first needed to design a decent method of measuring the event. Because, while I'm certain some of the more proficient bunters in baseball history did at times bunt for a hit with runners on, I'm afraid attempting to extract those occurrences from plain old sacrifice attempts would get entirely too hairy. I've therefore limited my search to all bunts with the bases empty (or b.e.). That way, there can be absolutely no confusion as to what the batter's intentions were.
I first queried the 100 players who had most often bunted themselves aboard in their careers. I then sorted those 100 players by success rate, presuming this would show us the greatest base-hit bunter of all-time. Here is the best of that group:
Top 10 Bunters with Bases Empty, Career by Hit%
All hail, Lee Mazilli! Bunt King!
Well, maybe. As you may have noticed, Mazilli does not take a seat in his throne without a certain amount of controversy. The runner-up to this contest, Don Blasinghouse, scored a Hit% just two percentage points behind that of Mazilli, but his actual rate of Reaching Base while bunting with the bases empty was a marginally superior 88.3%.
Try to imagine for a moment, a batter bunting for a hit 88% of the time he attempted to do so. Although Mazzilli possessed speed enough to capture upwards of 40 bases at times in his career, his high success rate here is attributable in large part to his effective use of the bunt. Lee kept it simple. He didn't over-use his secret weapon. He kept it in his pocket and he knew exactly when to retire it.
A year-by-year inspection reveals that the bulk of Mazzili's Attempts came in a span of four years. He served mostly as a Utility player beyond that, surrendering the bunt-hit from his arsenal as his speed vanished from his skill-set. In fact, only one of his b.e. bunts occurred after his age-27 season, and an enormous 30 of his 35 hits occurred before he turned 26 years old:
Lee Mazilli, Bases Empty Bunting
Despite being incredibly efficient in those early years, however, Mazilli still never managed more than 9 of these hits in a single season. That modest number pales in comparison to some of his elite company in the Top 100, specifically a one Brett Butler.
Most Bases Empty Bunt Hits in a Single Season
Brett Butler had the most b.e. bunt hits in a single season with 29 in 1992, at an impressive success rate of 57%. It may not be too much of a shock, therefore, to learn that he also holds the record for most b.e. bunt hits in a career with 188. His career Hit% did not make our Top 10, however, as Butler managed just a 49% success rate in the majors. Still, he deserves ample consideration for our contest.
I've highlighted some of the more exceptional success rates in yellow-- those seasons with at least 60%. Our Reached Base% leader from the first table, Don Blasingame puts the world to shame in this regard, after posting a surreal 95% success rate (17/18) in 1964. Surely this sort of peak puts Don into the running for Best Bunt-Hitter of All-Time, also.
Carlos Gomez and Willy Taveras represent the most recent inductees into this prestigious club, demonstrating their bat-handling prowess in 2007 and 2008 respectively. (Though keep in mind my 2012 retrosheet table is not yet set-up yet, so if any player made the list this season, they would not be receiving credit here either. I am specifically curious to see how Mike Trout fared.)
Curiously, Juan Pierre makes the list in four separate seasons, a feat which is second only to Butler's six appearances, yet none of Juan's seasons topped a 42% success rate. This theme of failure was par for the course for Pierre, and it plagued him throughout his entire career. The ugliness ultimately culminated with an atrocious nadir of just 20% (6/30) in 2010:
Juan Pierre, Bases Empty Bunting
Surprisingly, Pierre's god-awful failure rate in 2010, ranks just 5th worst since 1950, for bunters who attempted a b.e. bunt at least 20 times in a season:
Top 10 Worst Bases Empty Bunting Seasons
In 2009, Willy Taveras was just a season removed from having one of the best b.e. bunting seasons of all time. But that somehow didn't stop him from posting the worst bunting season of all-time at just 3/22. I can only imagine that it is a unique brand of terror witnessing your lead-off hitter fail again and again in such a manner, especially when it is accompanied by a gut-wrenching .553 OPS. While the bunt for a hit really is one of the more esthetically-exhilarating events in the game of baseball, when a player fails at it-- say, by bouncing a grounder back to the pitcher or popping up to the catcher-- it looks profoundly stupid.
Most of the hitters on this list of shame strike me as the type that prides themselves on their speed, but could not produce enough offensively to be an effective player. A cursory glance of their wOBA numbers in those seasons supports this assumption. Rafael Furcal leads the group with just a .333 wOBA in 2005, which was barely league-average at the time. Perhaps these players turned to the bunt out of desperation, hoping to use their speed to compensate for their lack of skills at the plate. And It seems that plan didn't always pan out.
Still, neither Pierre nor Otis Nixon appeared to be deterred by their high failure rates and went on to collect enough bunt hits to make the all-time Top 10 anyway. They join the likes of some other names you might expect to make this list-- Maury Wills, Omar Vizquel, Matty Alou, Vince Coleman. But there is also one other name which may surprise you.
Top 10 Bunters with Bases Empty, Career by Hits
Even in Mantle's best season, when he hit for an other-worldly 1.164 OPS and a 202 wRC+, he still managed to lay down 11 bunt-hits with the bases empty. Can you imagine the sort of frustration that this would cause opposing pitchers? Here you are facing one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game, a shoe-in Hall of Famer, a perennial MVP candidate consistently threatening to hit 60 HR a season, and he's bunting on you?!!
That is just completely, utterly ridiculous.
All data from retrosheet, includes post-season, from 1950-2011.
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Who is the greatest bunter of all time?
Lee Mazilli (6 votes)
Brett Butler (17 votes)
Don Blasingame (11 votes)
Harmon Buck "Buckaroo" Gin Bokai (1 vote)
Mickey Mantle (15 votes)
50 total votes