In some circles of the internet, Norris Hopper is a legend. He played for parts of three seasons in the big leagues and all three came with the Cincinnati Reds. From 2006-2008 he racked up 440 plate appearances with the Reds and hit .316/.367/.371. He had absolutely no power – hitting just one home run in his big league career. But what he could do was make plenty of contact and he could place a bunt wherever he wanted to. He had 22 hits on 42 bunt attempts in his career. He laid down a lot of bunts and he was incredibly successful with it. The bunt is often the target of the sabermetrics crowd, and for good reason: It’s usually bad strategy. But that’s mostly when it’s a sacrifice bunt rather than a true bunt attempt.
It’s been over a decade since the Reds have had a player who could actually bunt well. Drew Stubbs and later Billy Hamilton were well known for their plus-plus speed, but neither guy was able to find much success with the bunt. Cincinnati, though, could have another bunt king on their hands in 2022. Reds #14 prospect TJ Friedl has been incredibly successful in the minor leagues when it comes to turning bunts into hits. Several years ago I wrote about it here at Redleg Nation, but it felt like a good time to update the information.
Friedl, who got a late season call up with Cincinnati when their outfield was decimated by injuries down the stretch, didn’t attempt a bunt in the big leagues in his 36 plate appearances. But in the minor leagues during the 2021 season he attempted 26 of them. 14 of them went for hits. That’s a .538 average on bunts (before we account for any that were labeled as sacrifice bunts). Those 14 hits in 26 attempts puts Friedl at 62 for 112 in his minor league career (452 games). That’s a .554 average on bunt attempts for those keeping track at home.
Bunting is out of favor across Major League Baseball. If I gave you 100 guesses as to who had the most bunt hits in the 2021 season you almost assuredly would not pick the correct player unless you previously looked up the data. Joey Gallo and Garrett Hampsen led baseball with seven bunt hits. Only nine other players even had five bunt hits during the 2021 season. Tyler Naquin led the Reds with four (on six attempts).
The minors are not the majors. Defenders may not be as good. Fields may not be as good. Strategies may be a bit different. But Friedl spent the entire year in Triple-A and he has as many hits on bunts as the two leaders in Major League Baseball had combined. Not only has Friedl picked up a bunch of hits on the bunt, his ratio of success has also been incredibly high.
Cincinnati’s outfield situation is very much up in the air when looking at 2022. Jesse Winker, Tyler Naquin, Nick Senzel, Shogo Akiyama, Aristides Aquino, Max Schrock, TJ Friedl, and perhaps Jose Barrero are in the mix for playing time. Winker’s going to get his, though if the designated hitter comes to the National League that could open up some time in the field for others at times. Friedl could be the best defender of that group in center, but even if that’s the case he may not get as much time given some of the other potential options there.
But if there’s enough playing time given to TJ Friedl in 2022, expect to see him bunt. And expect to see him find plenty of success while doing so.