The free cookie on second and the bunt

2020-06-26 KetelMarte

This is not what a Diamondbacks fan should want to see if run-productive Ketel Marte leads off the tenth with the free cookie on second base to start the inning.

Depending upon where you spend time on social media, you can say that no sooner did the free man on second to open extra innings this year arise than at least two lines of discourse opened. 1) It makes major league baseball resemble the Nursery League. 2) To quote one such denizen directly, “[E]very player will have to learn to bunt.”

To the second came the reply, “I hope they teach them not to bunt foul on the third strike.” So I couldn’t resist with what I’m about to write, especially since it might put a finish to such nonsense as the free cookie on second to start.

I can count on one hand the bunts I’ve absolutely loved but I’d need more than two hands to count the theoretical bunt situations that weren’t, or didn’t stay that way. And, as Keith Law once wrote (in Smart Baseball), “I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game because she really wanted to see guys drop some sac bunts.”

The two greatest bunts that weren’t happened in the mid-1980s.

When Pete Rose was pressured to figure out a way to save the Tying Knock—the hit where he’d meet Ty Cobb on the all-time hit list—for the home folks, he went up to hit late in a game at Wrigley Field, one swat away, with men on first and second in the top of the ninth in a tie game, the last of the set before Rose’s Reds returned to Cincinnati.

Everyone in the game including then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth thought Rose the manager would send Rose the player up only to pinch hit in that Chicago series. Or, in a situation such as he now faced, you could hear every other Reds fan and their nebulous owner (Marge Schott) at the time screaming “BUNT!” Rarely at a loss, Rose would remember, “I had thirty thousand people yelling here and one lady back in Cincinnati, every time I got a hit, kicking her dog.”

Rose the manager had his Reds eight games out of first place and Dave Parker on deck. With his owner, so many Reds fans, and Joe and Jane Fan elsewhere demanding otherwise, Rose the manager didn’t have to remind Rose the player what 23 seasons of major league experience told him: A sacrifice means the Cubs then putting Parker aboard intentionally to load the pads and leaving the bigger hitting to smaller bats.

So Rose the manager, knowing the Reds had that much better chance to win, told Rose the player to swing. (It would have been mad fun if Rose the manager could have told Rose the player, “I’ll fine your ass ten large if you even think about a bunt.”) That was probably the single most most honourable plate appearance and swinging strikeout of the baseball life Rose ultimately dishonoured.

He still got the Big Knock, passing Cobb, when the Reds went home. He got there in the first place by playing the game right, refusing to bunt because it would have taken the bat out of his best clutch hitter’s hands anyway. If you’re going to lose (the Reds did that night), you don’t just roll over and play dead for the other guys.

A year later, New York Mets relief pitcher Jesse Orosco batted in the bottom of the eighth of Game Seven in the 1986 World Series. Darryl Strawberry opened the inning with a parabolic home run to give the Mets a badly needed insurance run, but a two-run lead against those star-crossed but still-tenacious Boston Red Sox wasn’t quite enough.

“I’ll bet the house,” crooned NBC colour commentator Joe Garagiola as Orosco checked in at the plate. “He’s got to bunt.”

With one out and Mets Ray Knight on second and Rafael Santana on first, the Red Sox played Orosco to bunt and put on the rotation or “wheel” play: corner infielders charging down the base lines, middle infielders charging to cover the corner bases. What happened next made you wonder why nobody else thought of it too often, if at all.

On 1-1 Orosco squared to bunt as Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper kicked to deliver. The wheel play was on. And Orosco pulled his bat back, swung gently, and . . . “Swinging!” hollered play-by-play virtuoso Vin Scully. “And a ground ball into center field! In comes Knight, it is 8-5 Mets, and Joe, you just lost your house!”

Rose and Orosco in different ways testified to the wisdom of refusing to hand the other guys outs on trays and gift-wrapped. (With the DH universal this year, a pitcher bunting is moot for now.) Now, a lot of those otherwise dismayed at the free cookie on second to open an extra inning can’t wait to see some leadoff bunts dropped.

Except that you might be, say, the Milwaukee Brewers going to extra innings, and you might have Christian Yelich due to lead off your half of the tenth. Or, you might be the Houston Astros, and you might have Jose Altuve or Alex Bregman due to lead off the tenth. Or, you might be the Los Angeles Angels, with all-universe Mike Trout due to lead off the tenth. Or, you might be the Arizona Diamondbacks, with Ketel Marte to open. Or, you might be the Atlanta Braves, and either Freddie Freeman or Ronald Acuna, Jr. is your scheduled leadoff man.

You’re not going to take the bat out of the hands of those guys and order one of them to take a good loving look at the free cookie on second base and bunt him to third. (Not unless you’ve got someone behind them whom you can trust to deliver the clutch hit—and even then.) If you are, you’d better not be surprised when your bosses want to hang you in effigy, chase you clear across the state line, and then get really mad.

If you’re in the top of the tenth, you want to get ahead as swiftly as possible and with one of those guys leading off you’ve got a better than 50-50 chance of getting the free cookie across the plate and putting another man on base at minimum. At maximum, of course, you’ve got an excellent chance that Yelich, Altuve, Bregman, Trout, Marte, Freeman, or Acuna is going to hit for extra bases, maybe even a two-run homer. Either way, you’ve put the burden on the other guys to tie and win.

If you’re in the bottom of the tenth, you want to win just as swiftly if not more so. Do you still want to take the bats out of the hands of a Yelich, an Altuve, a Bregman, a Trout, a Marte, a Freeman, or an Acuna, and order them to drop a measly bunt when your odds of a game-winning base hit are that much more in your favour with bats like that opening your inning?

OK, you’re foolish enough to want to bunt the cookie to third leading off. Swell. In the bottom of the tenth, you’ve given yourself one less out to work with and your best bat is out of the picture. You might get lucky from there; you might not. In the top of the tenth, maybe a sacrifice fly brings the cookie home but you’ve got only a one-run lead that’s easier to overcome—and, with only one out left to play with, the bases empty and your best bat’s still out of the picture.

Yelich, Altuve, Bregman, Trout, Marte, Freeman, and Acuna might be sitting on the bench scratching their heads if not thirsting for a stiff one over that.

What about the other guys? I’ll guarantee it. If you think about bunting to open with the free cookie on second, be prepared for the other guys’ pitcher being prepared to let you bunt. Be prepared for him making you bunt. Maybe with a big grin on his face. The other guys like gift-wrapped presents, too, you know.

Because that smart a pitcher will throw your opening hitter nothing but something he can only bunt to the third base side, enabling that pitcher to pounce on the ball and throw the cookie out. If your opening hitter doesn’t exactly have enough speed to out-race a cement mixer with a flat tire, be prepared further for Area Code 1-5-3 or, if the third baseman was coming down the line and the shortstop’s moving to cover third, an Area Code 1-6-3.

Brilliant. You just outsmarted yourself into two outs and nobody on.

You think I just brewed that idea alchemically in the dungeon? It’s right out of the book of Casey Stengel, courtesy of his Mets pitcher Al Jackson:

There were men on first and second and you knew the other team wanted to bunt them over. Casey would say, “Here’s what I would do. I would let him bunt. I would throw him a little slider, and I would break toward the third base side, and I would throw his ass out at third.” Casey had the guts to tell you what he’d do in a certain situation when it came up on the ball field.

By the way, Jackson never once allowed men on second to be sacrificed to third.

If they don’t think about letting you bunt, they may think about putting Yelich, Altuve, Bregman, Trout, Marte, Freeman, or Acuna aboard on the house to lead off and giving themselves a shot at an instant double play. Leaving you a man on third, two outs in the hole, and a lesser bat to do your run production.

Giving outs away is unsound baseball as it is. The free cookie on second base to open the extra innings is foolish enough without bringing the bunt back. Under normal circumstances, the only time you ever ought to want to bunt is if your man leads off with nobody on and a) he has speed to burn, it’s one out or less, and he can bunt for a base hit; b) he has a lame infielder (say, Miguel Cabrera) to exploit; or, c) he has a wide-open half infield to play with thanks to a defensive shift.

You give me that extra free space? I’m accepting that gift, with no intention whatsoever of seeking a refund—even when you’re a couple of outs from finishing a no-hitter but I’m only down two or three runs. In that position, I still have a chance to get runs across the plate and win. Why the hell are you giving me a free hit? (If I’m down more than three runs, maybe I don’t even think about it. And maybe you don’t, either.)

If you’re that foolish, you’re paying the penalty. Sure, I respect what your guy’s trying to accomplish, but I also respect that he didn’t pitch his kishkes off just for you to play with fire on his dollar. If my batter sees that yummy wide-open space, and he doesn’t take advantage of it and drop himself a bunt for a free base hit, he’d better have his flight out of the country booked, reserved, and boarding-passed. Because, silly me, I have a job to do too—win.

And I’ve got a future Hall of Famer on my side there. Once upon a time in his life as a Detroit Tiger, Justin Verlander took a perfect game bid into the sixth with one out and a 4-0 lead. Seattle’s Jarrod Dyson dropped a bunt and beat it out for a hit. Tiger Territory screamed blue murder—about Dyson’s bunt more than the three-run rally it launched to help send the Mariners to a 7-5 win. Verlander was more troubled by the three-run rally and eventual loss than he could ever have been about Dyson’s bunt:

It was a perfect bunt. That’s part of his game. I don’t think it was quite too late in the game given the situation to bunt, especially being how it’s a major part of what he does. So I didn’t really have any issues with it. It wasn’t like I got upset about it.

The book of unwritten rules is at least half foolish and maybe more. Just wait until you see someone deciding the unwritten rules include not even thinking about bunting with the free cookie on second base. But you don’t have to play that card to know that that, like too many bunting orders, is the fool’s errand of gifting the other guys precious outs.

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