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Brett Butler and the lost art of the bunt hit

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The man had 42 (!!!) bunt hits in 1992 for the Dodgers.

Brett Butler

Amid all the discussion surrounding how and when Major League Baseball might return in 2020, the one certainty seems to be that, at least when games start again, they will be without fans in the stands.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and part of the White House coronavirus task force, was asked Wednesday morning by Peter Hamby of Snapchat if there would be MLB, college football, or NFL seasons later this summer and fall.

“There’s a way of doing that. Nobody comes to the stadium. Put them in big hotels, wherever you want to play, keep them very well surveilled,” Fauci said. “Have them tested like every week and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their family, and just let them play the season out.”

There are certainly hurdles that must be cleared before any type of MLB season can begin, but while doubt creeps in about the viability of any kind of season at all, it got me thinking of another thing we don’t really see much anymore.

The bunt single.

Blake Harris’ series of Dodgers players ranked by WAR yesterday landed on Brett Butler, who was the master of the bunt.

“The bunt has made Butler a .300 hitter,” Gary Carter told Craig Barnes of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel in 1995. “If he didn’t bunt, he would be fortunate to hit .250.”

Butler hit .290/.377/.376 in his 17-year career, seven of which were spent with the Dodgers. Baseball-Reference doesn’t track bunt hits before 1988, but a May 16, 1994 Los Angeles Daily News article noted that Butler had 257 bunt hits, and six in the season at that time. He’d go on to tack on 29 more bunt hits the rest of his career, giving him 286 in total. For what it’s worth, Butler in a 2015 instructional video said he had 245 career bunt hits.

Even making all of those 286 bunt hits outs, Butler’s career average would lower to .255. If we just remove those 286 at-bats altogether, he’d be at .265.

While Carter was exaggerating for effect, it’s true that Butler was the master of the bunt. Opposing teams knew it was coming, but Butler found a way to lay down successful bunts throughout his career.

“But a bunt means as much to Brett Butler as a home run does to Darryl Strawberry or somebody like that,” Butler told Tom Saladino of the Associated Press in 1991. “Baseball is built around the home run. But as of late, they’re starting to realize the importance of a leadoff man, a singles hitter, somebody who can bunt.”

Brett Butler’s bunting prowess

Year Bunt hits MLB rank
Year Bunt hits MLB rank
1988 19 1st
1989 20 1st
1990 22 1st
1991 21 2nd
1992 42 1st
1993 26 1st
1994 9 3rd
1995 20 2nd
Source: Baseball-Reference

In the years Baseball-Reference has tracked such things, Butler was in the top three in the majors in bunt hits for eight straight seasons (1988-95), including leading the majors five times. He averaged over 22 bunts hits per season in that time, including an eye-popping 42 bunt hits in 1992.

Those 42 bunt hits is the highest total dating back to at least 1988. Only four others have even reached 30 in a season — Kenny Lofton (32) in 1992, Alex Sanchez (32) in 2003, Willy Tavarez (37) in 2007, and Carlos Gomez (30) in 2008. Since Gomez, no player has reached even half as many bunt hits as Butler’s best year.

Only one team in the last 11 seasons had as many bunt hits as Butler’s 1992 high — the Angels in 2011, with 43. Major league teams in 2019 averaged 12.8 bunts hits as a squad, roughly half of what Butler himself averaged from 1988-93.

Butler got his 2,000th career hit on May 15, 1994, a first-inning single against A.J. Sager of the Padres at Dodger Stadium. Naturally, it was a bunt.

“I laid down the bunt, it was close, then I couldn’t believe it,” Butler told Ken Daley of the LA Daily News in 1994. “I thought, ‘All right.’”