Sep 24, 2013, 11:19 AM EST
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.
Dec 8, 2013, 2:44 PM EST
John Axford was non-tendered by the Cardinals earlier this month, but the 30-year-old right-hander won’t have trouble finding a new place to pitch. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that the Cubs, Orioles and Mariners have all expressed interest in Axford since the Cardinals let him go. And those teams may even offer him the opportunity…
Dec 8, 2013, 1:31 PM EST
Rakuten Golden Eagles president Yozo Tachibana spoke to the Japanese media this weekend about MLB and NPB’s new posting system, which puts a $20 million cap on posting fees. The Golden Eagles own the rights to the hottest international free agent on the market this winter, Masahiro Tanaka, and were hoping to cash in like…
Dec 8, 2013, 12:25 PM EST
Another thing to monitor at the Winter Meetings … According to Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, the Royals are expressing interest in free agent second baseman Omar Infante and will try to beat out the Yankees for his services. The two clubs engaged in a biding war for outfielder Carlos Beltran — which the Yanks…
Dec 8, 2013, 11:39 AM EST
From Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com: More than 15 teams have called to express interest in free agent reliever Andrew Bailey, MLBTR has learned. The 29-year-old had season-ending shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in July, and the Red Sox declined to tender him a contract earlier this month. Barring setbacks, he…
Dec 8, 2013, 10:47 AM EST
Free agent right-hander A.J. Burnett has said publicly and privately that he will either pitch for the Pirates in 2014 or retire from baseball for good. The Bucs want him back and are prepared to commit a significant portion of their budget to the cause, but the 36-year-old has not made an official decision about…
Dec 8, 2013, 9:58 AM EST
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL — Greetings from the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort, deep in the dark recesses of the happiest place on Earth. I have been down here with my children since last Tuesday, doing battle with a mouse. The mouse is a worthy adversary. Much respect for him and his hyper-efficiency at separating…
Dec 8, 2013, 8:53 AM EST
If you read one thing today, make it this Seattle Times profile of the Mariners’ front office. Geoff Baker, the author of the piece, talked to former M’s manager Eric Wedge, former special assistant Tony Blengino and scouts who are still affiliated with the team. What he found wasn’t pretty. A taste: One of those…
Dec 7, 2013, 11:00 PM EST
First baseman James Loney had a career rebirth of sorts in 2013 with the Rays and the team would like to bring him back, but not at his current asking price, reports Mark Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Loney is currently seeking a three-year, $27 million deal. If the Rays have to search for…
Dec 7, 2013, 10:10 PM EST
Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball recently agreed to a new posting system, altering the way Major League teams pursue Japanese talent. One of the changes capped posting fees at $20 million, meaning that if multiple teams are willing to pay the fee, the player can negotiate with them all, with only the winner…
Dec 7, 2013, 9:15 PM EST
After Carlos Beltran signed a three-year, $45 million deal with the Yankees, we learned he had actually been offered more money by the Diamondbacks but declined in order to return to New York. Still looking to fill their corner outfield void, they are showing interest in Angels slugger Mark Trumbo, tweets Bob Nightengale of USA…
Dec 7, 2013, 8:10 PM EST
Per Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti says he has made multiple offers to Juan Uribe, but have yet to hear back. The 34-year-old free agent has spent a majority of his playing time at third base since joining the Dodgers in 2011. Uribe had a career year in 2013, finishing…
Dec 7, 2013, 7:35 PM EST
Billy Hamilton was a weapon off the bench for the Reds in September as the team geared up for a run at the NL Wild Card. In 2014, Hamilton is expected to play full-time as the Reds’ lead-off man and starting center fielder, writes MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon. Shin-Soo Choo patrolled center for them in 2013,…
Dec 7, 2013, 6:50 PM EST
Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle tweets that the Giants have considered free agent Mike Morse to fill their left field vacancy, but they think they can do a better job making a trade. Schulman added that he would not be surprised if the team made a trade over the upcoming winter meetings. Morse…
Dec 7, 2013, 6:05 PM EST
In what has become an annual tradition, rumors have begun to swirl suggesting Reds closer Aroldis Chapman could move into the starting rotation. The lefty has ranked among baseball’s top-five relievers over each of the past two seasons, but he would theoretically provide more value in the rotation. Neither the team nor Chapman is interested…
Dec 7, 2013, 5:32 PM EST
According to Joe Frisaro of MLB.com, the Marlins have had “internal discussions” about a trade for Rays utility man Sean Rodriguez. The plan would be to play him at third base, possibly as part of a platoon. The Marlins are reportedly close to a two-year, $7.5 million contract with Garrett Jones, which likely signals that…
Dec 7, 2013, 4:56 PM EST
One day after inking right-handed starter Scott Feldman to a three-year, $30 million contract, the Astros have signed veteran reliever Chad Qualls to a two-year deal with a club option for 2016. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reports that Qualls will make $6 million guaranteed in the deal while the option is worth $3.5 million. Qualls,…
Dec 7, 2013, 4:34 PM EST
Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor which brought the United States into World War II. Murphy’s Bleachers, a popular bar outside Wrigley Field in Chicago, decided to remember that tragic day with this unfortunate and tasteless sign: Not the way to remember a tragedy. http://t.co/JZk8kxFwYM— Paul Sullivan (@PWSullivan) December 07,…
Dec 7, 2013, 3:09 PM EST
With last night’s signing of Carlos Beltran, the Yankees officially have a surplus of outfielders. And more than a few teams are wondering if they would consider cashing in on that depth in order to upgrade in other areas. Source: Yankees receiving significant interest in Brett Gardner and willing to trade him. They're not shopping…
Dec 7, 2013, 2:10 PM EST
It was reported two weeks ago that the Red Sox had checked in on the availability of Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp and Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports that he remains “in play” as a potential trade target for Boston. A potential match makes sense on paper, as the Dodgers have a surplus of…
Dec 7, 2013, 1:05 PM EST
Now that second baseman Robinson Cano has reportedly accepted a 10-year, $240 million contract to leave the Yankees for the Mariners, we can open the floodgates on some anonymously-sourced bad-mouthing. We have our first such story from the Cano side of things, courtesy of George A. King III of the New York Post: “Robbie didn’t…
- Robinson Cano agrees to $240 million deal with Mariners (260)
- Yankees agree to seven-year, $153M contract with free agent outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury (160)
- Report: Mariners willing to offer Robinson Cano a 10-year, $240 million deal (143)
- Report: Yankees have agreed to a three-year deal with Carlos Beltran (125)
- Brett Gardner is drawing “significant” trade interest (111)