During the offseason here at Redleg Nation I only write a minor league column once every two weeks. Sometimes they are better than others. I can’t tell you how good this one is going to be, because it’s going to be up to you. But I can tell you that I really enjoyed what went into writing it.
As I’m sure you’ve seen many times, and in many places both here on these pages, or on the various social media accounts of many of the writers at Redleg Nation (including my own), we aren’t generally fans of the bunt. I won’t pretend to speak for them beyond that, but I will speak for myself. It’s not the bunt that is the problem. It’s the idea that you are purposefully trying to make an out via the bunt that gets the “bunts are stupid” proclamations. When players bunt with the purpose of trying to get a hit, it’s a very different strategy.
And all of that brings us to the subject of this article: TJ Friedl. The Reds picked up the outfielder after the 2016 draft as an undrafted free agent. Some teams didn’t realize he was draft eligible, though some did and didn’t select him despite the fact that he hit over .400 that season as a redshirt sophomore. He went to play for Team USA and that’s when he caught the eyes of just about everyone and the secret got out to those who didn’t already know – he was eligible to sign with the highest bidder. That year it just so happened to be that the Cincinnati Reds had more money in their draft budget than anyone else, and they used it to bring the now former Nevada Wolf Pack outfielder into the fold.
One of the big aspects in his game is that TJ Friedl is very fast. He’s not quite Billy Hamilton fast, but he’s a plus runner who can use his speed well. As a left handed hitter he’s able to get down the line to first base very quickly and can be a problem for infielders on balls that aren’t hit right to them. But he’s also an excellent bunter.
Just how good is TJ Friedl at bunting? Well, if the numbers tell us anything, he’s very, very good at it. Before diving into Friedl’s numbers, let’s take a look at some Major Leaguers. From 2016-2018 there were only 16 hitters who collected 15 bunt hits. Before I started writing this article if you had told me that I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had told me that only four players had more than 18 bunt hits in that span I REALLY wouldn’t have believed you. But both of those facts are true according to Fangraphs batted ball data.
Fangraphs defines Bunt Hit Percentage as Bunt Hits divided by Bunts. This is important because it is not the same as batting average on bunts, which would not count sacrifice bunts as attempts. I’ve always felt that for guys with speed they are never attempting a true sacrifice bunt because they are capable of beating it out if it’s a decent bunt. When looking at the 16 players who had at least 15 bunt hits between 2016-2018 there was a wide range of success rates. Billy Hamilton, unfortunately, was dead last in this category, turning just 26.2% of his bunt attempts into bunt hits. The top five were all above 50%, with Gerardo Parra leading the way at 62.%. Here’s the entire list, again, from Fangraphs (link above):
The chart above is sorted by highest-to-lowest bunt hit percentage. While Gerardo Parra tops the list, Cesar Hernandez had more than twice as many bunt hits in the same span and was successful at a 55.2% rate. That’s far more impressive to me.
Now that we’ve established what is happening with regards to bunts at the Major League level among the guys with the most bunt hits, and how often they are successful with them, let’s look back to the minors and TJ Friedl.
Let’s first start out by noting that the Major League season is longer than the minors by a month. And that TJ Frield didn’t begin playing professionally until July 2016 – half way through the year. Since he was drafted, Friedl has attempted to bunt 75 times. Of those 75 bunts he’s gotten down that results in the end of a plate appearance, 44 of them were hits. That’s good for a Bunt Hit Rate of 58.7%. Comparing that with the Major League numbers above, it would have been the second highest rate in baseball among players who actually bunted with any sort of frequency. But it’s not just the success rate, but also how often he was bunting. His 44 hits would easily top the chart above. And it wouldn’t be remotely close.
If you want to break down his bunts, a clear trend shows up: The pitcher and third baseman field almost all of them. The pitcher fielded 35 of the 75 bunts he made over the last three seasons. It was the third baseman who fielded another 24 of the bunts. That’s 59 bunts to those two positions, with just 16 being fielded by the catcher (7), first baseman (6), or second baseman (3). In the video above you can see one of his bunts that found it’s way to the first baseman. Spoiler alert: It was a hit.
I don’t want to say that TJ Friedl is the bunt king. Minor League defenses aren’t quite as good as Major League defenses. And Minor League fields aren’t quite Major League ones, either. But if there’s one thing I feel confident saying, it’s that TJ Friedl has been very, very good at bunting for base hits as a professional.