Sep 24, 2013, 11:19 AM EDT
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.
Apr 23, 2014, 3:01 PM EDT
Sammy Sosa hit 293 homers at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs are trying to make people forget that happened.
Apr 23, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT
Matt Harrison will come off the disabled list and start Sunday for the Rangers, seeing his first big-league game action in more than a year following multiple back surgeries and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
Apr 23, 2014, 1:35 PM EDT
Daniel Nava is headed to the minors one season after hitting .303.
Apr 23, 2014, 1:05 PM EDT
Nick Franklin is trying to find a way into the Mariners’ lineup.
Apr 23, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
Jesse Crain hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game since June 29 and it doesn’t look like that will be changing any time soon.
Apr 23, 2014, 11:36 AM EDT
It’s been an awful start for the Snakes. Awful enough to get someone fired?
Apr 23, 2014, 11:19 AM EDT
Brewers pitching prospect Johnny Hellweg, who was acquired from the Angels as part of the Zack Greinke swap in July of 2012, has been diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and is expected to undergo Tommy John elbow surgery.
Apr 23, 2014, 11:02 AM EDT
Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma was expected to begin a minor-league rehab assignment this week as he comes back from a spring training finger injury, but instead the team had him throw a 58-pitch simulated game yesterday.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:48 AM EDT
Fenway may be the site of more accomplishments, but it’s easier to see ourselves in Wrigley Field.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:15 AM EDT
San Diego is looking to trade one-time starting catcher Nick Hundley.
Apr 23, 2014, 9:29 AM EDT
Not the best call by instant replay officials in the system’s brief history.
Apr 23, 2014, 9:08 AM EDT
Right now, Cuban players have an incentive to avoid coming straight to the United States. That incentive should be eliminated.
Apr 23, 2014, 8:40 AM EDT
The columnist’s name is Anthony Rieber. And he apparently doesn’t get out much.
Apr 23, 2014, 6:35 AM EDT
Pitching porn in Atlanta. Graphic, hard core pitching porn.
Apr 22, 2014, 11:20 PM EDT
CSNNewEngland.com’s Sean McAdam reports that outfielder Shane Victorino may be activated from the disabled list Wednesday if he makes it through his third minor league rehab game Tuesday night at Triple-A Pawtucket without experiencing any issues.
Apr 22, 2014, 10:01 PM EDT
Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright landed awkwardly while trying to chase down a high-chopper off the bat of Chris Young in the seventh inning Tuesday at Citi Field and left the game with a hyperextended right knee.
Apr 22, 2014, 9:17 PM EDT
Angels fan Tim Sherrill, a resident of Ponoma, California and a member of the United States Air Force, caught Albert Pujols’ 500th career home run on Tuesday night in the nation’s capital …
Apr 22, 2014, 8:53 PM EDT
Albert Pujols hit a three-run shot to left field off Nationals starter Taylor Jordan in the top of the first inning and then crushed a two-run bomb to deep left-center off Jordan in the top of the fifth for the 499th and 500th home runs of his 14-year major league career on Tuesday night in Washington, D.C.
Apr 22, 2014, 8:39 PM EDT
Manny Machado will soon be one phone call away from rejoining the Orioles’ active major league roster. According to Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun, the young third baseman has been cleared to embark on a minor league rehab assignment this Friday with the High-A Frederick Keys.
Apr 22, 2014, 7:51 PM EDT
Watch as Albert Pujols hits his 499th career home run Tuesday off Nationals starter Taylor Jordan …
- Wrigley Field — the most human park in baseball — turns 100-years-old 12
- And That Happened: Tuesday’s scores and highlights 69
- Albert Pujols becomes 26th member of 500 home run club 45
- MLB suspends Martin Maldonado, Carlos Gomez, Travis Snider, and Russell Martin for Easter brawl 48
- “Respect the Game?” Phooey. 106