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Does pride keep sluggers from bunting against the shift?

Sep 24, 2013, 11:19 AM EDT

david ortiz bunt Getty Images

So, yeah, I don’t like the sacrifice bunt. I don’t like the way it’s scored. I don’t like the way managers use it. I don’t like percentages. I don’t like people’s hyper-eagerness to just give away an out, like it’s nothing, like it is actually worth just one base. I suspect I’ll be talking about all this at some length with Brian Kenny at 9:35 a.m. on his radio show.

But there is a kind of bunt I like, a kind of bunt I’d like to see players use more: The bunt against the shift.

Wait, let’s start with the NBA. From 1965 to 1980, as you probably know, Rick Barry shot underhand free throws. He made a rather extraordinary 89.3% in his career — but shot an even more incredible 92% his last six years. He got better as he got older. He was convinced — and he remains convinced — that anyone who takes the time to learn the underhand free throw and develops it can shoot 80% free throws, minimum. There is some science that backs him up.

Do you know much how much good 80% free throw shooting can do for some players? Last year, Dwight Howard averaged 17.1 points per game despite making just 49.2% of his free throws. He would have scored 222 more points total and averaged 20 points per game had he made 80% of his free throws. DeAndre Jordan made just 39% of his free throws — even at 70% he scores maybe 100 more points this past season and is an infinitely more valuable player at crunch time. Seventeen NBA players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game shot worse than 60%. I’m not saying this as some sort of old fogey “oh the kids today with their free throws” … I’m just saying: Why wouldn’t they TRY to shoot underhand?

The answer seems to be: It looks silly. It’s embarrassing. Great athletes simply find it intolerably demeaning to shoot a free throw underhand, like they were Betty White. For a little while, Wilt Chamberlain — a dreadful free throw shooter — tried the underhand method. It’s hard to find the numbers, but anecdotally there is some suggestion he improved a little bit from the line. Thing is, his heart wasn’t in it. Wilt Chamberlain shot 51% in his long career and still averaged 30.1 points per game. If he had shot 80%, he would have scored 3,400 more points and averages 33.4 points per game. Anyway, he did not stick with it. But he stopped shooting underhand because, as he wrote in his autobiography, “I slept with 20,000 women.” No, wait, he also wrote that shooting underhand free throws made him feel like a sissy, and the other players mocked him. Even an iconoclast like Wilt Chamberlain could not stand up to the intense pressure of not shooting underhand.

Rick Barry finds all this maddening. What’s a little taunting when you can SCORE MORE POINTS? In his mind, you are hurting your team and hurting yourself by not doing everything in your power to excel. It drives him crazy that players would rather miss free throws and look conventional than make free throws and look out of place.

So it brings us back to the bunt against the shift. As we know, it’s become more and more popular to play three infielders on the right side against power lefties … and put the third baseman close to shortstop. it’s proven to be quite effective against many players. But there is a way to beat it consistently. You could bunt the ball down the third base line. This works, even for players we have come to know as very slow. Three examples:

David Ortiz is 6-for-11 on bunts.

Jim Thome was 2-for-4 on bunts.

Jason Giambi was 2-for-3 on bunts.

We don’t have a lot of data for this because, of course, hitters rarely bunt against the shift. Ryan Howard never has. Josh Hamilton tried it once, unsuccessfully, and took much abuse over it. Ted Williams once bunted against the shift and it was national news, the Splinter giving in. He did not give in again. “Like Ruth before him,” John Updike would famously write of Williams pulling balls relentlessly into the teeth of the defensive shift, “he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles — a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.”

No, it’s not selfish … but the more interesting question: Is it productive baseball? How often would a player need to be successful on bunts against the shift for it to be clearly the better strategy. I asked our pal Tom Tango if he had some numbers for the occasion and, not surprisingly, he did. He looked specifically at situations with the bases empty.

“If you are successful on a bunt with bases empty,” he wrote, “you add +.26 runs. If you are out, it’s -.16 runs. If you are successful 60% of the time, then you have added: .26 x .60 – .16 x .40 = +.092 … And that’s pretty much the limit to what an exceptional hitter can add (with the bases empty). Therefore, ANYONE who can bunt at least 60% of the time into an open field (with bases empty) should do it every single time.”

This makes sense to me. But even if you don’t do it every time, why wouldn’t you bunt against the shift at least now and then. I mean LOOK AT THIS? I’m not saying it’s as easy as Robbie Cano makes it look there, but it’s an opportunity to get on base a very high percentage of the time. And as Bill James points out, it also could have the auxiliary benefit of stopping the other team from using the shift. Why wouldn’t hitters take greater advantage of that?

I think the reason few players bunt is two-fold. One, obviously, revolves around the Rick Barry underhand free throw. Bunting against the shift is embarrassing, it’s demeaning, it’s somehow admitting defeat. Of course, that’s the cunning power of the defensive shift. The shift in many ways is like the final Tom Cruise maneuver on Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” — it is a play on the subject’s ego and hubris and refusal to look weak. Nicholson, who clearly had no misgivings about lying through his teeth, only had to say, “No, I didn’t order the code red,” and Tom Cruise is off somewhere getting disbarred. But he didn’t. A batter has only to bunt a few balls down that third base line to completely destroy the defensive shift. But he doesn’t.

Two, baseball remains inextricably tied to what people want to believe. In so many ways, I think that’s why the sacrifice bunt is still such a viable baseball play — it’s because, it SHOULD be a good play. I mean, look, this guy’s giving himself up for the good of the team. This guy’s moving into scoring position. That should increase our chances of scoring! The inconvenient fact that it doesn’t increase chances of scoring — not mathematically, not historically, not at all — simply cannot overwhelm the optics.

And so speedy guys still keep getting put at the top of batting orders, and little guys who can’t necessarily hit but can “handle the bat” still hit second and the team’s best hitter are hitting third, and the bopper keeps hitting cleanup even though there are many, many reasons to believe (and many studies that prove) that this is a poor way to construct a lineup. Why? It SEEMS right. It feels right. It looks right. I mean the fast guy gets on, he steals second, the stick man hits behind the runner and moves him to third, the team’s best hitter hits a sacrifice fly … great inning, right?

People have to understand, logically, that pitchers don’t win games. But the pitcher win seems right. People have to know that walks are valuable. But, wait, don’t you see that Joey Votto only has 72 RBIs? People have to know that sluggers will help their team more by bunting and getting on base at a very high rate than by trying to bang ball into a tiny gap in a defensive shift. But, wait, then they won’t hit home runs. Baseball, very often, focuses on what SHOULD be true rather than what actually IS true.

  1. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:29 AM

    Son, people can see you!

    • jarathen - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:37 AM

      Which was hilarious, but at the same time, you’d think Ron Swanson would go results > perception every time.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:10 PM

        Ron is very concerned with appearance. It’s just he has a very specific set of rules that regulate his appearance. It’s all about what is acceptable to be a real man. Just look at his Pyramid of Greatness.

  2. DelawarePhilliesFan - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:32 AM

    When Howard first started getting the massive over shift applied, he started trying to take the ball the other way – not exactky the same thing as bunting, but similar idea. It. Was. Ugly. And mind you – I am talking 2007 Ryan Howard, not the shell you see today.

    Bottom line is the best thing to do in an over shift his to hit the ball well, not try to be somethign you are not so that teams will not employ the shift

    • jarathen - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:38 AM

      If you can get on base half the time while also making the defense think twice when you take the plate, why would you not do that?

      What does the strategy of the game have to do with “trying to be something you are not?” Isn’t the point of baseball to score more runs than the opposing team? And if the opposing team is trying to marginalize your output in one area while giving you are golden opportunity in another, it’s probably worth a little work to make them pay.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:54 AM

        In the case of Howard, the balls were not even within 15 feet of being fair when they passed the bag – and believe me, that is not an exageration. All he was doing by trying to beat the shift was putting himself in an 0-1 hole. But when he swung away naturally, sometimes he was 0-1 anyway, sometimes he hit into the shift….and sometimes he roped a double.

        In fairness – that is Ryan Howard, that does not completely undercut Posnanski’s argument. But I think with many guys, it is the realization that they would be better off just sticking with the plan

    • skeleteeth - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:18 PM

      I don’t agree with this for two reasons. The first being I saw Howard play from the beginning in Philly and when he was on he was driving the ball to left-center with great power. Sure he pulled balls and hit massive homeruns to RF as well but when he hit gaps, particularly left-center, that was when you knew he was seeing the ball well.

      Second point stems from what I’ve seen in baseball from lefties and from being one myself. I heard growing up in summer and instructional leagues until about age 13 that going the other way or with the pitch is more conducive to production than trying to pull the ball. Not sure if there was logic in it for a player in a youth league or not but as I got older/bigger/stronger and had to face pitchers with greater velocity that advice changed more to generating bat speed and to get the barrel through the zone asap which usually resulted in pulling the ball and, for me, more outs. I never felt comfortable trying to get in front of a fastball. It almost always felt like guesswork with my legs in a twist underneath me sucking whatever power I had attempted to generate. For me, and what I’ve seen from players like Howard and Ortiz, center to left-center with full arm extension generates more power with seemingly little effort. I also felt more comfortable with breaking pitches when focusing on hitting it through the box as opposed to generating power. Maybe there is a connection between being left-handed as opposed to lefty batters that throw right-handed?

      I wonder how much comes down ultimately to the decision of the player at the professional level. I can’t imagine hitting coaches spending much more time than maybe a suggestion to bunt/go the other way to someone that has been hitting into shifts for most of their career.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:42 PM

        I agree he was htting with power to left, but did you ever see him hit a grounder to left?

    • jc4455 - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:22 PM

      Sooo… you should read the article above.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

        And you think I didn’t read it becausssssse…..?

        You see, these are called “opinions”

      • jc4455 - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:00 PM

        @Delaware – Because there was objective data presented in the article that refutes your conclusion – a conclusion that was based on an anecdote in which the player was doing something other than bunting against the shift. I’m sure if you read the article you’ll feel completely different about the merits of bunting against the shift.

      • DelawarePhilliesFan - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:20 PM

        Relax, your life will be fine because I don’t agree that “Ortiz is 6 for 11” is an all encompassing case for all players. Or that “pride”” is to blame (what exactly is his scientific case for that?)

        And as I said, nothing I am saying completely undercuts his point.

        You have a nice day

    • galtur - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:50 PM

      Laying down a bunt is a lot different than trying to go the other way.
      Some guys natural approach and swing makes it difficult to go the other way. The result is that they hit the ball meekly when they try to force it. It is also a lot easier to lay down a bunt to the 3b side regardless of where it is pitched, as opposed to going the other way on a ball on the inner third.

      Regarding Howard, I would love to see him lay a few down. Aside from the mere bump in on-base percentage, it would force teams to open up the right side, where time and again he hits the ball sharply right at someone. Take away the over-shift and he gets another bump from the singles he is otherwise hitting right at people.

      Earlier this year, right before Howard got hurt, I was looking at some statistics – specifically line drive percentages (great stat because more than anything else, a hitter wants to square the ball up). Aside from Howard and Jay Bruce, I think that every other hitter in the top ten for line drive percentage was in the top ten for batting average (or hitting .300 – can’t remember).

  3. Stiller43 - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    Not to pick nits (and REALLY not to talk about basketball), but if Howard werent such a bad free throw shooter, teams likely wouldnt foul him so much as a strategy.

    So he wouldnt have added THAT many points…but yeah, ive always wondered myself why people dont take the easy hit more often

    • jarathen - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM

      There’s a pebbles down the mountainside effect you’re ignoring here. Creating one less weakness makes the team probe for others and could potentially make the team more efficient.

      Imagine how much better a team could be if fouling it meant an almost certain two points every time. They’d have to think of something else or foul themselves into a rout.

    • Kevin S. - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:26 PM

      No, but it would stop him from getting hacked and allow him to finish around the rim more often, where he is more successful. It would also allow him to be a part of his team’s late-game offense. Yes, Aaron’s analysisis simplistic, but I do think he’d wind up with a similar points increase.

      • Kevin S. - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:27 PM

        Er, Joe, not Aaron.

  4. spudchukar - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:34 AM

    Joe, I love ya, but you make one fatal error. All runs are not alike or equal.

    • jarathen - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM

      There is obviously a situational element to it that would be worth discussing, but in purely objective terms, yes they are.

      • spudchukar - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:47 AM

        I recognize that Sabermetric devotees, and their ilk despise psychology. Joe dismisses the reality of psychological impact, referring to them as optics. They are not optical illusions. The psychological impact on teams is underappreciated.

        And if need an example, just check the run differential in the NL Central. It will make your head spin. Small sample size that it is, the gap is astounding.

      • Glenn - Sep 24, 2013 at 8:57 PM

        The whole point of Joe’s article was psychology!!!

    • jm91rs - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:54 PM

      Aren’t you the same guy that thinks Drew Stubbs is more valuable than Shin-Soo Choo?

    • nategearhart - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:22 PM

      “The psychological impact on teams is underappreciated.”

      Joe doesn’t underappreciate the psychological impact; he points out that one of the benefits of this move is to make the defense think twice about using the shift.

      • spudchukar - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:40 PM

        You missed my thread. It wasn’t directed at the shift, just bunting in general and its effects.

      • nategearhart - Sep 24, 2013 at 4:55 PM

        I caught your thread. Joe’s point is that it has been proven that the “psychological effect” of the sacrifice bunt is pure bupkis. But there IS a tangible psychological effect when you bunt against the shift, in that it encourages the defense to abandon the shift.

  5. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:35 AM

    It’s the same thing with NFL players and helmets. They make helmets that are safer, and reduce the chance of concussion. Why doesn’t the NFL mandate these helmets? The vast majority of players do not want them. Why? Because they don’t look cool.

    If players are willing to risk significant injury to look cool, why would anyone think they wouldn’t risk their batting average or points per game?

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:49 AM

      It’s the same thing with NFL players and helmets. They make helmets that are safer, and reduce the chance of concussion. Why doesn’t the NFL mandate these helmets? The vast majority of players do not want them. Why? Because they don’t look cool.

      Except they don’t even do that. Concussions occur because the brain smacks against the skull, sometimes repeatedly. Making a stronger helmet doesn’t stop this from occurring, or as biomedical engineering expert Richard M. Greenwald at Dartmouth University said:

      “I can’t think of a single reason why installing Kevlar would protect the brain in a collision,” he said. “It’s the egg-yolk-inside-the-shell analogy. Making the shell stronger will still scramble the yolk.”

      But your point stands, the players don’t use them because they look foolish (think Murton Hanks). Also Brandon McCarthy insinuated as much about players and the better protective batting helmets.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:55 AM

        I’m not talking about adding Kevlar to helmets, or making a stronger helmet, I’m talking about actually using a safer model that was designed from the ground up to reduce risk of concussions.

        The scientists tested the safety features of 10 different helmet models, measuring the accelerations, at impact, when the helmets were sped from these multiple distances and angles.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:58 AM

        Here is some additional info. (If you trust wikipedia that is)

        It’s really fascinating, that there is this technology out there that could help. Even if it wasn’t guaranteed, but just a chance to help, and it costs you NOTHING, and yet all they care about is who looks the coolest! What are these players thinking?

  6. drinkpeepee - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:38 AM

    Chris Davis probably could have hit .315 had he bunted against the shift this year. But, given the O’s luck, his leg probably would have snapped in half as he casually rounded first base. Still in shock. Excuse me while I cry in the shower.

    • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:48 AM

      I wondered that myself a bit. But he did hit a LOT of home runs to left. I’d say his hr splits were about 20/30/40 left to right. I didn’t really understand why they would put a shift on a guy who spread the ball around the field so well, but then again as I said below, he’s lefty, so the league must treat him like some sort of freak mutant no one understands.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:50 AM

        Chris Davis’s 2013 HR plots:

        LF – 12
        CF – 19
        RF – 20

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:00 PM

        So, 23.5/37.25/39.25

        Wow, for a completely, inaccurate and wild guess, I was pretty spot on! I should call my bookie. (Booky? Bokie?)

      • drinkpeepee - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:15 PM

        definitely, he also was able to slap base hits that way against the shift. Just not sure why they didn’t have him push hard bunts down the 3rd base line. he isn’t slow, those are singles every time and sometimes can even turn into doubles if the shift is hard enough to right.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:24 PM

        You mean like this?–mlb.html

      • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:41 PM

        Hitters frequenty spray differently on fly balls vs line drives & grounders. I have seen managers employ the infield shift against a lefty while playing the outfielders shading toward left.

        Which is to say that a HR spray chart is not necessarily indicative of the potential or real success of the infield shift deployed against any particular batter.

      • josephchinn - Sep 24, 2013 at 10:04 PM

        HR splits are irrelevant in the INFIELD shift argument..The next time I see an OUTFIELD shift in anything except slowpitch softball, it will be the first, however I never saw Ted Williams play so I can’t speak to whether or not any opposing manager employed the OUTFIELD shift against the splendid splinter.

  7. American of African Descent - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:43 AM

    “That’s pride [messing] with you. [Forget] pride!”

    • DelawarePhilliesFan - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:00 PM

      heh-heh. But don’t forget, Butch did listen to pride, and came out all right (in the end). Where as Marcellus Wallace got……uhhhhh

      On an unrelated note “Tell that Bitch to BE COOL! Say IT!! Say BITCH BE COOL!!

  8. scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    One additional thought. OK, a few. Why do teams place a massive shift on a player and then pitch him outside EVERY SINGLE TIME. Does that not defeat the purpose of the shift? And why do hitters then, refuse to hit the ball the other way? Hello! They are BEGGING you to go to right field. TAKE IT! It’s not that hard, practice it sometime, you may even find it’s FUN!

    Also, why does the league seem to think only left handed batters are in-able to hit the ball to the opposite field? I can think of a few dozen lefties that get a shift put on them, to the point where the third-baseman is playing middle short. Yet you never see this on righties. What gives?

    This happens to me all the time. (I know it’s just league softball, but I’ve noticed it translates to the majors.) I’m left-handed and a team will play me max shift dead pull (Pro-tip, I hit 90% of the time to the 3B side of the short-stop.). Then pitch me outside. (Which is what I want anyways.) I crush one down the line for a stand up triple. Next at bat, I’m thinking they’ll play me strait up and pitch me inside. NOPE! Dead pull, outside pitch, rinse-repeat. I’m not complaining, but maybe I’d hit lower than high .700s if people would stop treating left handed batters as if we were cripple and could only pull the ball.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:51 AM

      This is what the Yankees pitchers do all the time, and it sucks!

    • jc4455 - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:31 PM

      There are these things called spray charts. Teams use them to position defenders.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:34 PM

        If you had read my entire comment, you would have noticed my primary complaint was not in the positioning of defenders, but the inability to pitch to that shift. Part of why I hate shifts, is that in order to do so properly, you are forced to pitch inside, thereby giving up a huge advantage to the batter. But what’s even worse is when you have a team over-shit to pull, then pitch outside, you are asking for a easy double.

      • sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:43 PM

        Stubborn lefty hitters still try to pull outside pitches, resulting even more frequently in ground balls to the pull side.

      • jc4455 - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:51 PM

        @scout – Pitching might make a small difference, but for the most part lefties that get shifted just don’t hit it to the left side no matter what. Their spray charts don’t look the way they do because of getting pitched inside.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:14 PM

        @ Sabathia. Stubborn hitters yes. And this is a problem, players being so stubborn to refuse to take a gift when it’s presented to them. Hence the point of the article.

        @ jc4455. The thing is, a lot of lefties DO hit to the right side, yet still get shifted against. The mentality seems to be “Here comes a lefty, he can ONLY pull the ball, because he is a lefty and is inferior to right handers.” My other, not as obvious point is, there are a lot of right handers that only pull the ball as-well, yet never get the over-stack treatment.

    • The Dangerous Mabry - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:33 PM

      You can’t do it to the same extent with righties because the first baseman needs to receive the throw at first on a ground ball. You can move the second baseman some, but the first baseman must stay at home. There’s no similar play at third, so the third baseman can move wherever he wants.

      • The Dangerous Mabry - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:26 PM

        Further, shifts towards third base make all of the throws longer, which makes turning ground balls into outs harder. You can position a second baseman in shallow right and he can still throw a runner out at first on a hard grounder. A shortstop playing in left field would have a much harder time throwing out a runner at first on a similar type of play.

  9. cur68 - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:50 AM

    The sac-bunt sucks.

    • jm91rs - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:58 PM

      Unless your pitcher is a god awful hitter, in that case I would guess that even stat guys like the idea of putting a ball in play with a bunt.

      • nategearhart - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:25 PM

        Or they prefer the DH.

      • historiophiliac - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:29 PM

        Ahhh, pitcherwannabehitter ball.

  10. unclemosesgreen - Sep 24, 2013 at 11:51 AM

    Most sluggers can’t bunt or run. Other than that, great theory.

    • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:30 PM

      Because it’s impossible to learn how to bunt…. I mean it’s not like there is a system of coaches and teachers and trainers setup specifically to teach players how to play the game. And if you can’t leg out a bunt where no one is playing third base, then you have bigger problems than the team putting a shift on you.

      • jm91rs - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:57 PM

        If you watched the Reds play baseball you would think that bunting is impossible to learn. It’s clearly not something they teach in the minor league system.

      • unclemosesgreen - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:57 PM

        It’s not a priority in most organizations. See: Grant Green (an infielder no less) arriving at Anaheim without a clue how to lay one down. Scosia was quoted on this at the time of the trade. Your sarcasm continues to deftly hide any baseball knowledge you may possess.

      • scoutsaysweitersisabust - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:07 PM

        And that’s certainly a problem. Organizations are not properly teaching the fundamentals which means that many players do not have the skills to defeat this strategy. Possibly this is why managers feel to comfortable employing a strategy that is so (theoretically) easily defeated.

        But, to throw your hands in the air and say “Sorry, don’t know how to bunt, can’t learn, screw it.” just doesn’t seem to me to be the proper response.

    • jc4455 - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:32 PM

      David Ortiz is 6-for-11 on bunts.

      Jim Thome was 2-for-4 on bunts.

      Jason Giambi was 2-for-3 on bunts.

      Do commenters on this site read the articles?

      • unclemosesgreen - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:37 PM

        The cherry-picked stats comprising 17 attempts by 3 sluggers are not statistically persuasive to those who can both read AND think.

      • jc4455 - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:42 PM


        You don’t have to be particularly skillful at bunting or running if there’s no third baseman.

  11. Jack Marshall - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    Ted Williams, if I recall, eventually conceded that he should have bunted against the shift more often, simply because he could have discouraged its use. In his amazing 1957 season when he hit .388, Williams was injured in the Spring and his timing was off, causing him to hit to the opposite field, essentially away from the shift. Then, as teams started eschewing the shift, Williams’s timing returned and he started pulling the ball through holes the shift had previously blocked.

    In Ted’s case, though he rationalized it by claiming that to alter his hitting style to accommodate the shift would have harmed his production, it’s pretty clear that pure ego was the deciding factor.

  12. billyboots - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:47 PM

    As a Twins fan, I have seen this go two completely different ways in person. The first time I saw it happen was several years ago with Matthew Lecroy doing the bunting. It was just pathetic. The first pitch he completely whiffed and the second was a two foot dribbler that the catcher easily grabbed and threw to first before Lecroy was even two inches out of the batters box. The other time was with Jim Thome a few years ago. He did a little smack bunt up the line, similar to what Cano does in the video above. The talk was that Denard Span was working with Thome to improve his bunting, but that is the only time I can remember him doing it.

  13. stex52 - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:50 PM

    Probably not so much pride as lack of practice. I guarantee that a big slugger who has been up for a few years has not bunted in years, literally. Going to have to learn it all over. I’m sure a lot of them find that intimidating.

  14. sabathiawouldbegoodattheeighthtoo - Sep 24, 2013 at 12:50 PM

    It is a situational thing. If Chris Davis comes to the plate in the 9th as the tying or winning run, he should probably be swinging away. If it is bases empty and down by 2 runs? Getting on base is more important than a HR could be.

    Of course, that can’t be the first time he tries to bunt all season. He would have to work on it with coaches, and try it out every now and then to hone the skill. A bit. Let’s face it: it needn’t be a “good” bunt in the traditional sense. If there is nobody at 3B he only needs to get the ball past the pitcher to secure a base hit. Cano’s “bunt” in the linked video is more of a slap hit while choking way up on the bat. Find a technique that works when the situation demands it and utilize a new tool.

  15. Jeremy Fox - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    Question: How come NFL players and teams are fine with “taking what the defense gives them”? They do it so often that the phrase “take what the defense gives you” is a cliche. Is it just because you don’t look silly or wimpy throwing a 7 yard out pattern when the cornerbacks are playing soft (or whatever), the way you look silly or wimpy shooting free throws underhand or bunting?

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:25 PM

      Is it just because you don’t look silly or wimpy throwing a 7 yard out pattern when the cornerbacks are playing soft (or whatever), the way you look silly or wimpy shooting free throws underhand or bunting?

      Because time is usually a factor in these cases. For instance, Jets/Bills, <2min to go and the Bills needed to drive it 99 yards for the tie. The Jets played a soft defense, or they should have, b/c between setting up, getting hte ball placed, and running a play, you'd run out of time with 7 yd patterns. Even if the team got out of bounds each time, you're probably looking at 6-9 seconds per play. You'd run out of time before marching down the field.

      • Jeremy Fox - Sep 24, 2013 at 5:43 PM

        NFL teams “take what the defense gives them” all the time, not just when trailing late in the game and faced with a prevent defense. For instance, if a team is blitzing a lot, you run a lot of screens and draws. When quarterbacks read the defense and see something they don’t like, they audible to another play or call timeout to pick a different play. Etc. Much of the whole vaunted chess match of NFL play calling is about the offense trying to run a play that the defense isn’t set up to stop. Not that that’s all teams do–there are plenty of teams that are going to try to do what they’re best at no matter how the defense sets up. But I can’t imagine that, if an NFL defense set up in the footfall equivalent of a Williams shift, that the offense wouldn’t do the football equivalent of bunting to the empty area.

        And I don’t think it’s the time issue. In your example of a prevent defense, taking what the defense gives you doesn’t just mean throwing 7 yard patterns, it can often mean 15 or 20 yard patterns.

  16. chadjones27 - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:19 PM

    Aren’t the big boppers also the slow runners (typically)? So, unless he puts down a perfect bunt down the 3rd base line that the pitcher can’t handle, seems a bit worthless to try. But, situationally, you get a pitcher who falls away from 3rd base, it might be worth it. “Might” being the key word here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having Ortiz, Howard, etc… drop the occasional bunt just so I can watch the defense scramble.

  17. Joe - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:29 PM

    “If you are successful on a bunt with bases empty,” he wrote, “you add +.26 runs. If you are out, it’s -.16 runs. If you are successful 60% of the time, then you have added: .26 x .60 – .16 x .40 = +.092 … And that’s pretty much the limit to what an exceptional hitter can add (with the bases empty). Therefore, ANYONE who can bunt at least 60% of the time into an open field (with bases empty) should do it every single time.”

    One thing missing here is opportunity cost – the RE of the batter swinging away with the shift on. What are the chances that he gets on base? What’s the value of getting extra bases? Doing the simple math, one home run is almost equally valuable in terms of added run expectancy as are four successful bunt singles.

    Is the average RE of David Ortiz swinging away with the shift on zero? Is it greater than zero? Is it less than zero? You need answer that question before you can determine the breakeven success rate of batting against the shift.

    • Joe - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:41 PM

      Except that I totally missed where we do just that. Oops. Thumbs down to myself.

  18. nbjays - Sep 24, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    I think it’s only pride in that most sluggers who get the shift put on just don’t want to be embarrassed to show that they can’t bunt worth a damn. If you were one of these hitters, learning to punch a hard bunt just past the pitcher down the third base line, and doing it consistently, would put a very quick end to the shift.

  19. wheels579 - Sep 24, 2013 at 2:10 PM

    Posnanski’s criticism of the sac bunt simply isn’t true. It is a viable strategy when used properly. I’ve heard the same thing about the stolen base. Getting a runner to third with less than two outs is a big deal, and staying out of the double play can make a big difference in certain situations.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Sep 24, 2013 at 3:27 PM

      Math disagrees with you. Context neutral (i.e. not when you have a pitcher hitting or a really terrible batter at the plate), there’s only a couple situations with giving up an out is worth moving the runner over. Things like bottom 9th, tied game. The Run Expectancy of man on 1st no out is slightly lower than man on 2nd, one out.

  20. stlouis1baseball - Sep 25, 2013 at 1:08 PM

    Great article Joe. Upon first reading the headline…I immediately thought of Rick Barry giving Shaquille O’Neal free throw lessons. Rick actually had Shaq shooting at a very respectable clip.
    Which was a monumental task in and of itself. You will remember Shaq’s hands were so big the Basketball looked almost comparable in size to a softball. The result was Shaq shot-putting his FT’s. They asked Shaq why he abandoned the Granny shot (especially considering the almost immediate improvement in his FT percentage). Shaq’s replied it was far too embarrassing for him to shoot it Granny style.

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