OK, here’s the deal: a reader recently asked me why more batters don’t bunt against shifts and I said the answer was kinda long, but eventually I’d get around to writing about it, which proves at least one thing:
Whoever said act in haste, repent in leisure probably had a blog.
But I try to keep at least a solid one-third of my promises, so here’s what I’ve learned about the subject and if you pay attention, you too can be the know-it-all at your local bar tonight when the Astros play the Nationals and some player doesn’t bunt against a shift and the drunk next to you wants to know why.
Take notes if necessary.
Bunting is way harder than we think
Let’s say you’re a big league hitter and you want to get better at bunting; how do you practice that?
You can bunt all day long against a machine and it won’t duplicate what you’ll see in a game. You might be a great bunter against a machine that throws straight, but it’s not the same as trying to bunt against a pitcher who throws 97 with movement.
Someone once asked me why they don’t get guys who throw 97 with movement to throw batting practice and the answer is pretty simple: if you can throw 97 with movement you’re probably pitching in the game that night.
Those guys don’t grow on trees and you don’t waste one on batting practice.
Plus — unlike the machine — that 97 with movement guy just might hit you in the head or the hand (that’s what happened to the Nationals’ Trea Turner) and that fear adds a little extra anxiety to an activity that looks pretty simple when you’re sitting in the upper deck working on your third beer.
But shouldn’t a guy know how to bunt before he ever gets to the big leagues?
It’s not a priority at the amateur level
When my “Throwback” co-author Jason Kendall was rehabbing in the rookie league, some kid asked him a question: “Mr. Kendall, why are you hitting so many ground balls to the right side in batting practice?”
Jason – ever the diplomat – replied: “First of all, I’m your teammate not Mr. Kendall and second, that the hell are they teaching you guys?”
Jason explained hitting a ground ball to the right side was one of the tools a big league hitter ought to have in his kit. It’s what you do when the first baseman is holding a runner on and leaving a hole over there or there’s a runner on second base with nobody out or the other team has decides to put on a right-handed shift and leave the right side wide open.
So why is that skill – and bunting – being ignored at the lower levels?
At the amateur level kids want to get noticed by scouts and the best way to make an impression is to hit a ball 400 feet or throw it 95 mph. So the finer skills – bunting, hitting the ball the other way and learning how to pitch instead of throw – tend to get ignored.
There are big league scouts who say tournament ball is ruining the game.
And it might not be a priority in the minors
So let’s say you never learned to bunt as an amateur and then get signed by a team that’s heavily influenced by analytics. The numbers guys don’t like the bunt as a strategy so your team might not make it a priority in their minor league system.
Now you make it to the big leagues and the same analytics guys that thought bunting was a waste of time have convinced teams to use shifts and the skill you need to beat those shifts hasn’t been developed.
A left-handed power hitter who has spent his entire amateur and minor league career being told to swing for the fences gets to the majors and now needs to bunt.
And that probably isn’t going to work out so hot.
Should power hitters bunt for singles?
One of the reasons behind the shifts is taking power hitters out of their game; if they want to beat a shift by bunting for a single, go right ahead and try – at least they’re not hitting a homerun.
The power hitter is probably a lousy bunter and even if he gets on base he probably can’t run. Guys who can’t run clog the bases and make their team play the game 90 feet at a time. So even if bunting for a single works the slow guy’s teammates are thinking: “Great. Now how many singles is it going to take to get his fat ass around the bases?”
Which is one way to look at it — here’s another.
A runner who didn’t score in the third inning might mean another trip to the plate for a team’s best hitter in the ninth. When Jose Altuve hit that two-run homer to win the ALCS in the ninth inning did anyone give credit Michael Brantley or Carlos Correa for their walks in the eighth?
Even though the Astros didn’t score in the eighth inning, those two walks got George Springer and Jose Altuve another plate appearance in the ninth and those two plate appearances won the game.
You don’t paid for bunt singles
Like most institutions, people and religions, baseball wants to have it both ways.
The people who run teams want players to play team baseball when it helps the team win, but then they don’t reward team baseball financially. Nobody is making big money for their ability to hit ground balls to the right side.
But baseball does reward home runs; hit 30 bombs and you’ll get paid.
That being the case, some players don’t want to give away a chance at one of those 30 bombs by bunting for a single. And if you’re aiming for general admission anyway, you don’t care how many guys they put on the pull side of the field, your plan is to hit the ball over them.
A player can take that attitude during most of the regular season, but when his team has a chance to go to the postseason – or even better makes it to the postseason – now it’s time for those bunt singles and moving runners, but since those skills weren’t worked on during the regular season, those skills aren’t there in the playoffs.
And players just don’t practice it enough
So far I’ve blamed tournament ball, analytics and baseball’s salary structure for some players’ inability to bunt for a hit and if you give me a few minutes I could probably work in a shot at climate change as well.
But having been lucky enough to attend a lot of big league teams’ pre-game workouts I can tell you the “fly guys” – players that can run – are out practicing their bunting on a regular basis, but you don’t see a shitload of left-handed power hitters working on laying one down.
Maybe they’re all working on their bunting in the indoor batting cages, but I kinda doubt it. So some of the blame goes to the players as well; if they wait until the situation is desperate to try putting down a bunt, it’s probably too late.
So to sum up:
1. Bunting is harder than we think.
2. A lot of teams don’t value it so a lot of players don’t practice it.
3. And to be any good at it you have to practice it a lot and do it in games.
Now go bore someone in a bar tonight.
I know I will.