The Best Bunter of All-Time

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.

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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.

The Best

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%

Name # _Debut _Att_ _Hits_ _Hit%_ _Reached%
Lee Mazzilli 1 9/7/1976 40 35 87.5 87.5
Don Blasingame 2 9/20/1955 77 66 85.7 88.3
Steve Garvey 3 9/1/1969 56 46 82.1 82.1
Nellie Fox 4 6/8/1947 43 35 81.4 81.4
Don Kessinger 5 9/7/1964 60 44 73.3 73.3
Matty Alou 6 9/26/1960 123 90 73.2 74.0
Rod Carew 7 4/11/1967 126 91 72.2 72.2
Vada Pinson 8 4/15/1958 44 31 70.5 75.0
Tommy Harper 9 4/9/1962 57 40 70.2 71.9
Pete Rose 10 4/8/1963 93 65 69.9 69.9

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

Year_ Att_ Hits_ Hit%_ Reached%
1976 2 2 100.0 100.0
1977 9 9 100.0 100.0
1978 8 7 87.5 87.5
1979 7 5 71.4 71.4
1980 8 7 87.5 87.5
1981 NULL NULL
1982 5 4 80.0 80.0
1983 NULL NULL
1984 NULL NULL
1985 NULL NULL
1986 NULL NULL
1987 1 1 100.0 100.0
1988 NULL NULL
1989 NULL NULL

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

# Name Year _Attempt _Hit_ _Hit% _Reach%
1 Brett Butler 1992 51 29 56.9 56.9
2 Juan Pierre 2003 69 24 34.8 37.7
3 Brett Butler 1993 54 23 42.6 42.6
4 Carlos Gomez 2008 59 23 39 39
5 Kenny Lofton 1992 44 22 50 50
6 Otis Nixon 1991 40 21 52.5 52.5
7 Willy Taveras 2007 30 20 66.7 66.7
8 Juan Pierre 2005 49 20 40.8 44.9
9 Del Unser 1971 24 19 79.2 79.2
12 Don Blasingame 1964 19 18 94.7 100
16 Maury Wills 1965 29 18 62.1 62.1
13 Brett Butler 1991 33 18 54.5 57.6
10 Alex Sanchez 2003 40 18 45 42.5
11 Otis Nixon 1995 40 18 45 47.5
14 Brett Butler 1990 40 18 45 47.5
15 Juan Pierre 2004 43 18 41.9 44.2
17 Tom Tresh 1962 26 17 65.4 65.4
19 Bobby Tolan 1969 30 17 56.7 56.7
18 Brett Butler 1995 32 17 53.1 53.1
21 Frank Taveras 1979 21 16 76.2 76.2
30 Neifi Perez 2002 23 16 69.6 69.6
24 Mike Caruso 1998 25 16 64 64
27 Brett Butler 1988 31 16 51.6 51.6
25 Maury Wills 1963 33 16 48.5 51.5
29 Juan Pierre 2002 38 16 42.1 42.1
20 Willy Taveras 2005 39 16 41 43.6
28 Dave Roberts 2003 39 16 41 46.2
26 Alex Sanchez 2004 40 16 40 40
22 Maury Wills 1964 41 16 39 39
23 Otis Nixon 1997 44 16 36.4 45.5

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.)

The Worst

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

Year _Attempts_ Hits_ Hit%_ Reach%
2000 3 0.0 0.0
2001 33 13 39.4 39.4
2002 38 16 42.1 42.1
2003 69 24 34.8 37.7
2004 43 18 41.9 44.2
2005 49 20 40.8 44.9
2006 34 14 41.2 44.1
2007 33 11 33.3 33.3
2008 17 6 35.3 35.3
2009 8 2 25.0 25.0
2010 30 6 20.0 20.0
2011 35 14 40.0 45.7

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

Name # _Year _Attempt _Hit_ _Hit% _Reach% _wOBA
Willy Taveras 1 2009 22 3 13.6 18.2 .252
Fernando Vina 2 2002 27 4 14.8 14.8 .305
Otis Nixon 3 1989 23 4 17.4 26.1 .268
Darren Lewis 4 1993 22 4 18.2 18.2 .285
Juan Pierre 5 2010 30 6 20.0 20.0 .301
Dave Roberts 6 2004 33 7 21.2 24.2 .317
Nelson Liriano 7 1989 22 5 22.7 22.7 .324
Nook Logan 8 2005 27 7 25.9 25.9 .282
Rafael Furcal 9 2005 30 8 26.7 30.0 .333
Nyjer Morgan 10 2010 25 7 28.0 28.0

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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.

Final Note

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

Name # _Debut_ _Att_ _Hits_ _Hit%_ _Reach%
Brett Butler 1 8/20/1981 385 188 48.8 49.9
Otis Nixon 2 9/9/1983 353 145 41.1 44.5
Juan Pierre 3 8/7/2000 392 144 36.7 38.8
Maury Wills 4 6/6/1959 268 124 46.3 47.0
Kenny Lofton 5 9/14/1991 229 123 53.7 54.6
Rod Carew 6 4/11/1967 126 91 72.2 72.2
Matty Alou 7 9/26/1960 123 90 73.2 74.0
Vince Coleman 8 4/18/1985 190 89 46.8 47.9
Rafael Furcal 9 4/4/2000 211 80 37.9 40.3
Mickey Mantle 10 4/17/1951 148 80 54.1 54.7

The Mick.

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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