The 2018 Oakland A's, just two games out in the American League West, are a team of extremes. They've gone extreme bullpen in the era of relievers, supplementing a weak rotation with a relief group that has baseball's best ERA over the past two months. They've gone extreme launch angle in the era of fly balls, owning baseball's highest launch angle and fourth-highest slugging percentage.
They've gone extreme in something else, too. As best as we can tell, the A's are on track to be the first team* to go through an entire season without a single bunt hit. They have zero. No one else has ever done that. (We think.) It's the most "A's" stat in a season full of them. It's the most "2018" thing a team could do. Of course it's Oakland.
(* Reliable data on this sort of thing goes back to 1988, so we can't say with absolute certainty that no team prior to that didn't do this. But based on what we know about how baseball has changed over the years ... no team has ever done this. "To be quite honest with you, I looked to bunt every time I got up," said former Dodgers outfielder Brett Butler, who had 42 bunt hits in 1992 -- which is now more than any team has had combined since 2008. Even Butler played 30 years after noted bunters like Maury Wills and Pee Wee Reese. We don't know, but we know.)
(** Wait: the 1995 St. Louis Cardinals? How in the world did a team that included Ozzie Smith and was managed by Joe Torre [until he was fired in June] drop down only one successful bunt hit, by Geronimo Pena? "This is a bad team and someone must pay the price," wrote The Sporting News at the time Torre was let go, adding that "they're awful defensively [and] they have no speed." That probably gets to part of the issue, as does the fact that they played only 143 games in a shortened season, but it's still shocking.
Now, that says a little about the A's and a lot about baseball in 2018. As recently as '11, we saw 608 bunt hits across baseball, or one every 305 plate appearances. (That year, Juan Pierre had 18 bunt hits. This year, 27 of the 30 teams don't even have 18 bunt hits. 2011 was only seven years ago.) This year, through Wednesday, we've seen only 330 bunt hits, or one every 419 plate appearances.
You probably don't need a graph to show that bunt hits are at a low, but here is a graph showing you that bunt hits are at a low. If we put them on a "plate appearances per bunt hit" scale to account for the remainder of 2018 and partial seasons in 1994 and '95, you can see that the past two seasons have required well over 400 plate appearances per bunt hit, while earlier years needed only just over 200 plate appearances.
Now, the A's are doing all of this on purpose, just as they've done for years. Pitch tracking data came online in 2008, and the A's have by far the lowest ground-ball rate in that span. Five of the top 10 lowest grounder rate seasons in that time belong to Oakland, including not only this year's group, but also the 2012-14 sluggers of Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes. This isn't new. The A's hate grounders. They've just never avoided bunts to this extreme before.
Last year, they actually had eight bunt hits, tied for the third fewest. Then again, maybe they were trying to tell us something. Of the six men who had bunt hits, only two (Jed Lowrie and Matt Joyce) remain with the club, while Jaycob Brugman, Adam Rosales, Ryon Healy and Rajai Davis have all been forced to find new homes.
So what's happened this year when the A's have actually tried to bunt? Have they come close at all? The answer is yes, enough so that there's a caveat we actually need to address. Oakland has put down 13 bunt attempts, which is surprisingly not the fewest in baseball; it's second fewest to Toronto's seven. Let's look at them.
The obvious sacrifice attempts (nine)
Of those 13, two were from pitchers obviously attempting to sacrifice. (It didn't go well. Paul Blackburn and Brett Anderson each bunted into double plays.)
Seven more were clear sacrifice attempts from position players. (Three from Chad Pinder, two from Marcus Semien, one apiece from Jonathan Lucroy and Franklin Barreto.) For the most part, those worked as planned, though Pinder's attempt to move runners over from first and second in a 0-0 ninth-inning tie against Tampa Bay in May backfired when catcher Jesus Sucre nailed Lowrie at third base.
The failed hit attempts (three)
As best as we can tell, three A's have actually tried to bunt for hits. On June 13, Lowrie tried to bunt for a two-out hit in a game where Oakland was down, 10-3, to Houston. Pinder tried to bunt for a two-out hit vs. the Angels on March 30. But the more interesting one was when Matt Chapman laid one down against Dan Altavilla and the Mariners in Seattle on April 14.
The A's were down, 8-4, at the time. Chapman has been one of the 25 or so best power hitters in baseball this year, and the Mariners weren't even shifting against him. This was weird. No wonder he hasn't tried it since.
The controversy (one)
Now, the eagle-eyes readers among you may have noticed a discrepancy. At our Baseball Savant, we show the A's with zero bunt hits. At Baseball-Reference, they show Oakland with zero bunt hits. At FanGraphs, they show the A's with ... one bunt hit.
What's that about? When we investigated, it appears to be about this Joyce bunt attempt from back in April, when he's clearly attempting to sacrifice to push a runner on first over to second. (In addition to that being clear from the game situation, Joyce was facing lefty Luis Avilan, and Joyce has a career .183/.266/.306 line against lefties. Every plate appearance for him against southpaws is something of a sacrifice.)
Joyce reached, but not because he beat it out. It's because it was scored an error on White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu.
We're comfortable saying that doesn't count as a bunt hit. We're comfortable saying that the A's have zero bunt hits this year, and that it's almost certain that no team in baseball history has gone through an entire year that way. Oakland's success this year, revolving around a good deep bullpen and crushing the ball in the air, reflects the state of the sport in 2018. So does not ever getting a bunt hit.
The A's aren't zigging while others are zagging. They're leaning into it, hard. It couldn't be working out better for them.