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Today, we are looking at a case that has been driving fans in Cleveland, Ohio, mad for over half a decade. No, it is not the case of Terry Francona as many would expect. I originally thought I was going to be researching Tito and his supposed bunting antics myself. As you can see by the title of this article, my research led me in a different direction. Yes, our examination will be of the case of one Ty Van Burkleo.
A disclaimer: I’m not here to create a manifesto declaring that the numbers concerning sacrifice bunting are lying and bunting is the best way to win a close game. The numbers are the numbers and every team across the league, including those bunt-loving pitchers in the NL, have been slowly decreasing the number of sacrifice bunts they execute since practically the dead ball era. Not surprisingly, this decline has been quickened to breakneck speeds in the past couple seasons by the advent of more advanced statistics, such as the LGT favorite Win Probability Added (WPA). The death of the bunt could be a whole ABS lesson unto itself and may be one day, but that’s not why we are here.
Additionally, all rankings used in this analysis will only involve the AL. The NL dominates league wide SH rankings because of pitcher bunting and the overlap of top tier AL teams with bottom tier NL teams in SH rankings muddies the waters and makes comparing AL teams directly more difficult and less meaningful, in my opinion.
With that out of the way, before I dissect the hitting coach of the Indians, let me try and exonerate our manager of being a sacrifice bunting fanatic. I’ve heard for years on this board about Tito’s love of bunting and, this year especially, that he refuses to tell players not to bunt despite what the numbers tell us. All this talk made me wonder about his years in Boston. Surely Boston fans were subjected to the same bunting mania that Cleveland fans have had to endure, right? I was surprised to discover otherwise.
Looking at Sacrifice Hit* (SH) and Sacrifice Hit per Game (SH/G) rankings, the official stat that tracks sacrifice bunts, the Boston Red Sox under Terry Francona were anything but a bunt-happy team. From 2004, when Francona became manager, up through 2011, when he was fired, the Boston Red Sox consistently ranked in the bottom third of all AL teams in SH and SH/G each season**. They were on the bottom of the rankings for SH (which would have been 14th at the time) for 2 of those seasons - Tito’s first and last - and only ever reached as high as 11th. In fact, the total number of bunts they had only surpassed the Tribe’s current total of 29 once in an era when ~83% of teams regularly hit at no less than 30 SH every season.
Meanwhile, the Indians had been quite unpredictable in their SH numbers up until Tito’s arrival in 2013. They would rank 4th in SH one year, dip down to 11th a couple seasons later, then back up to 3rd, down to 10th again, and ended ranked dead last in the AL in both SH and SH/G the year before in 2012. They would climb to seventh in Tito’s first year and have ranked somewhere in the top 5 in the AL every season since, placing 1st in 3 seasons*** (2014, 2015, 2019***). Their SH/G across this time period** reflect an identical trend and in 2014, during this recent stretch of bunting dominance, the Indians posted their highest recorded SH/G at .31, which translates to 51 sacrifice bunts that season.
What happened when Tito came to Cleveland? His two managerial stints over the past two decades reveal two diametrically opposed styles of managing in relation to bunting. His Boston teams never bunted and his Cleveland teams don’t know when to stop bunting. There was nothing to indicate that the Indians would be bunting more. Well, as it turns out, Ty Van Burkleo is what happened to Terry Francona.
Ty Van Burkleo
The Indians’s longstanding hitting coach, who arrived in Cleveland in 2013 alongside Terry Francona, is one interesting guy. TVB’s playing career spanned 1981 to 1994. This included six years battling up the minor league system, a four year stint in Japan that saw him win two Japan Series titles while earning Player of the Year Honors after slugging 38 homers, and two failed runs in the MLB with the Angels and Rockies in which he garnered a slash line of .132/.250/.289 across 14 games and 44 plate appearances. He likes to fly fish, has built his own home, opened a pizza restaurant, and once had a dream of owning his own avocado ranch (All true, I did not make a single one of those up). To top it all off, he has a rich history coaching teams that love to bunt.
Van Burkleo started his coaching career with the Arizona Diamondbacks High-A league affiliate, but our first job of interest is when he returned to the then Anaheim Angels in 2001 to serve as their minor league hitting coordinator. It is here with the Angels that I propose that TVB learned the way of the Bunt.
The Angels are a team that has always loved a good sacrifice bunt. Or at least they did up until last season. From 2000 all the way up through 2017, the Angels averaged a top 5 AL ranking in SH for a season. They topped the leaderboards only twice, but also finished worse than 6th only 4 times in those 18 seasons. Around 2017 Billy Eppler’s new analytics department finally decided that bunting wasn’t the best use of their outs and they’ve teleported to the bottom three of SH and SH/G in 2018 and 2019 and only have two sacrifice bunts to their name this season. For the time that TVB coached in their organization, the Angels were in the top 5 every year except for his last year in 2006. While he was only a minor league hitting coordinator, all those guys that love to bunt have to come from somewhere. It is during this time that I believe he learned his hitting philosophy, which I’ll get to later.
Once he had his bunting legs under him, Ty Van Burkleo was hired to be the hitting coach of the Oakland Athletics in 2007. Being the home of Billy "Moneyball" Beane, the A’s have been a process-oriented organization for quite some time. This, of course, can be demonstrated by their sacrifice bunt rates. In the late ‘90s, Oakland was a leading force in SH, but since 2000, the A’s have practically lived in the bottom third of the AL in SH and SH/G. For all but four seasons, they have ranked no higher than 11th in the AL in both metrics. When were those other four seasons, you ask? Why they just happen to start right after Ty Van Burkleo showed up. In his second season, the A’s cracked the top 10 in the AL for SH for the first time this century. Burkleo would move on after 2008, but the players imbued with TVB’s philosophy would continue on, and their club would miraculously climb all the way up to the 4th highest SH total in the 2010 season before Billy came down from his statistical throne on high and smacked them around a bit. The A’s have been in the bottom 3rd of SH rankings ever since.
Van Burkleo’s next stop would be with the Seattle Mariners from 2009-2010 as a bench coach under his good friend Don Wakamatsu. The Mariners had historically been a middling bunting team, ranking somewhere in between 5th and 11th since the late ‘90s. The first year TVB showed up, the Mariners ranked 1st in the AL in SH and SH/G while breaking 50 total sacrifice bunts and 110 total bunt attempts for the first time in a decade. They would drop out of the top five into 6th the next year but still had 110 bunt attempts. These are the only two years the Mariners even came within 10 attempts of 100, let alone break 100. Due to a rather putrid performance from the offense all around in Seattle that season, the FO would clean house, and TVB was forced to move on. The Mariners would go back to their middling ways in bunting after his exit.
His final stop so far in his coaching career has, of course, landed him with the Indians. As mentioned earlier, Ty Van Burkleo became the Tribe’s hitting coach the same year that Francona became the manager: 2013. No sooner had he arrived than had the Indians found themselves atop the bunting pyramid and have pretty much stayed there ever since. In his second year with the Tribe, the team broke the 90 bunt attempt threshold for the first time in over a decade and remained above it for another season. In terms of sacrificing, here are the Tribe’s rankings in SH since TVB showed up on the scene, in order: 7th, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 5th, 4th, and 1st again so far this year.
Besides all the rankings, the Indians have also seen specific cases of young players that have come up under Van Burkleo’s tutelage and produced crazy high sacrifice numbers in their first season. In Jose Ramirez’s first year in 2014, he led the team in bunt attempts at 16 and sacrifice hits with 13. Francisco Lindor came up the next year, and in two-thirds of a season, he would also lead the team in bunt attempts with 20 and sacrifice hits with 13. Zimmer may not have recorded a SH in his rookie campaign, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t bunting. He led the team with 11 bunt attempts to the tune of 4 successful bunt singles. Greg Allen and Mercado both have had toned down versions of the bunting bug Lindor and Ramirez had, with Allen having 4 SH in his true rookie season last year and Mercado having 5 SH so far this season, both with at least 10 attempts. Naquin is the only break out rookie that hasn’t really been a bunting fiend. He had four attempts and two successful sacrifices his rookie year and then took a break before having two more SH this year.
Some players under TVB have always had a bit of the bunting fever. Roberto Perez recorded 5 SH in his debut season in just 29 games played. He has the rest of this season to hit one more SH and make sure that 2017 is his only season to date with under five sacrifices. Kipnis has also been a career bunter, and a good one at that. In a majority of his years in the big leagues, he has had at least 4 SH and has recorded a perfect successful bunt rate****, including 2019.
For all of the players and trends that have been breaking bunting in Cleveland since Ty Van Burkleo arrived, no season has been quite like this one. 2019. The arguments over bunting have been so frequent and fierce on these boards that it feels like the Indians have a bunt attempt every other game. While that statement is a gross exaggeration, the Indians have been bunting more than they have in years and have been doing a worse job at it.
We haven’t even reached September yet, and the Indians have already clocked the team’s most bunt attempts since 2015 with 69 (nice). They are also set to hit the most SH – at 29 they can pass 2016’s 31 with 3 more SH – since 2015. In 2014, when the Tribe first led the AL in SH under Ty Van Burkleo, there were seven AL teams that remained above .2 SH/G. This year, the Indians are one of two AL teams to have over a .2 SH/G, and there have been more AL teams than not that have had under .1 SH/G these past two seasons.
While the numbers and rates have gone up, the success and efficiency have simultaneously plummeted this season. The team ranks 11th in the AL in bunt success rate, and this season is the first in over 15 that they have a less than 70% success rate overall. The percentage of bunt attempts that end up as actual hits is also at its lowest point in a decade. These poor rates reflect in individual numbers as well. Of the five or six hitters with multiple seasons of bunting history, most are experiencing career lows in successful bunt rate: Lindor, Perez, and Ramirez. In fact, the only player still hitting at an above 80% bunt success rate this year is Kipnis with his aforementioned 100% rate. So overall efficiency is at record lows for the team and an increasing amount of bunts that are successful end as sacrifices.
To what can we attribute the unprecedented level of bunting the Indians have undertaken this season? It’s not like they are struggling offensively as they were in the first two months of the season. A majority of their attempts and sacrifice hits have actually come since their resurgence in early June. The more I have researched, the more I have come to believe that their offensive turnaround is actually a major contributing factor as to why we are seeing so many gosh darn bunts. This is where things come full circle back around to Ty Van Burkleo. No, he can’t be given full credit for what the offense has been able to do these past two months, but the hitting philosophy that he brought to Cleveland all those years ago, and that is now preached in the clubhouse by Tito, just might have something to do with it.
Learning Ty Van Burkleo’s philosophy and how he teaches and works with players during my research has been most insightful. One thing that TVB has always valued since coming from the Angels to today is having an aggressive approach at the plate. He wants guys to get out in front of pitches, get ahead in counts, and play the field aggressively. In the interviews I found concerning his comments on struggling hitters, he often mentioned players trying to do too much and getting outside of themselves, and he loves swing paths and getting out in front of the ball. While I could never pin down a quote directly endorsing sacrificing, he did mention bunting to beat the shift as a good aggressive approach earlier this year in reference to Jose’s struggles, and in the past he has offhandedly mentioned the merits of getting a guy on third and being able to sacrifice him in. This at least says to me that both bunting and sacrificing are things TVB values as a part of the aggressive mindset that he imparts to the players. A couple quotes from one interview early in the season, in the midst of the teams struggles, stand out to me and lead me to believe that he might have encouraged a more aggressive and fundamental (read: old school) approach at the plate:
"It’s a tough game," said hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo. "It’s a mental grind, but everybody presses – especially when we’re struggling to score runs. Everybody is trying to knock the run in. […] Early in the season we were struggling to set the table, but we were getting timely hits. In the series in Oakland (over the weekend), we were setting the table, but guys were pressing to knock that run in."
"I haven’t changed anything in seven years," said Van Burkleo. "We’re doing the same thing ... working hard, looking at video. If you’re asking me are we second-guessing ourselves, no." – May 13
Since the time of these quotes, Van Burkleo’s mindset seems to have taken hold on the team particularly strongly this season. So here’s what I think…
Warning: What follows is complete conjecture on my part
What I think happened with the Tribe’s offensive turn around, at least in part, is that as they started to turn things around, there was simultaneously an emphasis on being more aggressive at the plate and the whole team bought in as things turned around. This led to guys being more aggressive on the base paths, more aggressive during at bats, and, to the frustration of many, to bunt much more often than they typically would. People say Tito should just issue a "no more bunting" command, but I think the reason he’s been quoted as telling the players to get runners over any way they can is because it’s become a part of the entire team’s mentality. Indians players are seemingly taking it upon themselves to bunt more than ever this season and I think that has everything to do with the mentality the team has adopted as they’ve slowly turned the season around and turned this into a dog fight for the division. Tito doesn’t want to mess with that, so he’ll defend the bunting and the aggressive approach the team is taking. It’s just a part of how the team is approaching hitting right now, which means that whether we like or not, the Indians probably won’t stop bunting anytime soon. And we have Ty Van Burkleo to thank for that.
*According to baseball-reference.com: A sacrifice hit (also known as a sacrifice bunt, and abbreviated SH) is credited to a batter who successfully advances one or more runners by bunting the ball for an out, or who would have been put out but for an error or unsuccessful fielder's choice. A sacrifice does not count as a time at bat. …
A brief summary of the sacrifice hit rule over time: …
1940-present: Sacrifice hits are awarded only on bunts that advance a runner and result in an out, or would have resulted in an out but for an error or unsuccessful fielder's choice.
**Statistics for I could find for Sacrifice Hits per Game only go back as far as 2007.
***2019 numbers pending. As of this writing the Indians sit atop the AL with 29 SH, ahead of division rivals the Chicago White Sox who have 25.
****Successful bunt rate is a measure of what percentage of bunt attempts were either a hit or sacrifice.
Editor's note: The Academy of Bunting Sciences endorses this original research