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.
Great stuff Doug. It does make you wonder though – if hitting a round ball going 90 miles an hour with a round bat is the toughest trick in sport, and bunting makes that easier (with only one of the round objects really moving much) how is it that so many professional hitters (cough, BHam, cough) are so bad at It? This seems like a skill that should be pretty easy to teach.
So is Friedl and his bunting prowess steadily working his way to Cincinnati? Or at least to becoming an important prospect with value in a trade?
Because it’s not easy to do at all. I doubt Friedl has a lot of trade value. He’d be a good “toss in to add some value” guy, but he’s not someone that is going to bring back a guy that will make a difference.
I’ve wondered for the past few years if Billy was almost TOO fast to learn to bunt. Bunting is still really hard. And I have to believe that someone with Billy’s speed could probably beat out nearly everything he hit on the left side of the infield on the ground until he was, what, low minor leagues? He could probably get a double on nearly everything not hit directly to an outfielder. So there was never any incentive to actually practice bunting until he was, what, 18-19-20?
Billy’s biggest issue in bunting is not his speed but the fact that he does not square around and get planted while bunting, he is usually pulling away from the ball (when batting left handed or trying to get moving towards first too soon batting right handed. The issue is either teachability or coaching, personally I think it is the former. And after six years, he is not going to suddenly get it.
If he is a late-inning pinch runner, he is on base once per game. If he bats four times with an OBP of 0.025, he is on base once per game. The advantage of the first approach is that the manager can select when Billy gets his one time on base.
Billy needs to stop bunting, he is horrible at it. the fake bunt usually costs him 2 strikes.
New hitting coach could get some value out of Billy by having him hit from just one side of the plate. He has such bad strike zone management that he needs to view pitches from one side of the plate only and focus on that with no bunting.
I think if he did those things, and was properly platooned, he could hit 240-250.
Love the ideas mention previously that Billy doesn’t start games but comes in as a pinch runner
If we are being REALLY generous, his walk rate improved from 5.6% as a rookie to 8.3% last year, but the flip side seems to be it only increased because he swung and missed more, resulting in longer plate appearances.
Interesting analysis on a hot topic here. I’m curious what Billy’s minor league numbers were, to get a sense of the difference in pitching/fielding between minors/majors.
really good article Doug. How close to the majors do you think Friedl is? One year away, two years away or he won’t make it as a starter?
I’m not a B-Ham fan, but I’m curious what that plausible argument work look like, because I don’t see it.
TJ’s bat may or may not be a marginal improvement, but there is no doubt Hamilton’s defense and baserunning is better.
Watch that You Tube video, and you’ll see a hitter with a much better swing and approach than Hamilton. Note that his stride never varies, even against lefites. Friedl is an infinitely better bunter. Friedl has a career MiLB walk rate north of 10% and a strikeout rate of about 18%. He just turned 23, and he maintains his general statistical level as he moves up the ladder.
No, Friedl isn’t as good a baserunner as Hamilton (who is?), but he is fast enough to have gotten 30 bags last year, and has the great baserunning advantage over Hamilton of actually being able to become a baserunner. And no, he won’t be as good as Hamilton defensively, but he is good enough.
I believe that if both had 500 ABs in the majors next year, Friedl would have a better offensive year than Hamilton, and I don’t think it would be particularly close. And he would cost about $5 million less than Hamilton.
Man, talk about moving goal posts…I didn’t realize we were discussing who was the better hitter or the better value. I thought we were discussing whether TJ Friedl was an upgrade over Billy Hamilton right now.
Yes, if we disregard all the stuff that makes Hamilton a MLB player, then TJ Friedl’s is better (I guess, assuming low-to-mid A ball numbers translate directly to MLB numbers, which is dubious).
Note: Friedl’s walk rate is 1) below 10% for his career; 2) below Billy Hamilton’s walk rate at the same stage of his career (10.3% versus 9.84%).
That said, I’m not convinced B-Ham from 2019 to the end of his career won’t out-WAR TJ Friedl for the rest of his career. I’m not a fan of Billy and I hope he isn’t a Red in the near future, but TJ Friedl looks like a 4th or 5th OF type. 4th or 5th OF-types are lucky to even put up 4 WAR in their entire career. The truth is that teams would be knocking down the Reds door to get TJ Friedl if they felt he could outproduce a guy like Billy Hamilton. But like Doug posted above, TJ’s trade value isn’t very high.
So what does that tell you…
I hope Friedl does too…I’m not sure if he is really a leadoff type in today’s MLB, but it’d be nice for the organization to hit on a guy like him for once.
Hamilton was misused a lot during his time in Cincinnati, but he did manage to put up 10+ WAR during that time. Disappointing, but he wasn’t a complete bust.
In keeping with the Rougned Odor family tradition, Douglas is changed to a name starting with R. Hence the Douger is the Rouger. My apologies, I had to look up Rougned Odor when it appeared above, as I don’t know much about him (junior circuit).
If I’m the Reds FO, I have him show Billy how he (Friedl) does it this spring training with his hunting skills. Can’t hurt can it?.
Darn auto correct. Bunting skills
TJ is probably a better hunter than Billy, too. The kickback would knock Billy down.
Or Brett Gardner, who is listed as 5’11” 195 now but was lighter 12 years if I recall correctly. Gardner and Friedl both split their age 22 seasons between A+ and AA, with Gardner having an OPS of .851 in A+ and then .670 in AA. Friedl had an OPS of .817 at Daytona and .719 at Pensacola. Gardner stole a 58 bases to Friedl’s 30, and had a better strikeout rate, but they are pretty comparable so far.
I love the idea of bunting for a hit (instead of the sac bunt) but IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll add these thoughts.
-Best when none on base
-If someone is on base, they need to take a lead and be savvy enough to not be the put on the play
-Said bunt hitter needs to steal bags at 90% success or better to offset the SLG loss from sacrificing your full swing
-Steal attempts with two outs and one of your best hitters up are foolish (unless they are in 0-2 count and not Joey Votto)
-Steal attempts with one out and best hitter up also are foolish, slightly less so.
Taken together, due to roster composition and lack of baserunning skills league wide in todayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s game, the moments where bunting for a hit are valuable just do not present themselves as often from an analytic perspective.
I love TJ Friedl, and wish him the best, though.
I was trying to think of a player to compare TJ to, I think you hit on the head with the Freel comparison.
Kluber will cost Senzel no if ands or buts
Cleveland isn’t looking to rebuild, they want to cash in starter for high end long term cost controlled positions players who can play now.
You’re right on the money Sliotar
Very interesting post-any thoughts as to what position (pitcher,3rd, or catcher) is most likely to throw the bunter out?