Brian Snitker will not have to worry about putting food on the table for an extra two years. The Braves have extended their manager two more seasons, through the end of 2023, and with an option for 2024. He’s worth it not just because he’s returned the Braves to National League East excellence, but because he hates the bunt.
In 605 opportunities during the pan-damn-ic truncated 2020 season, the Braves tried exactly one sacrifice bunt. Partly because last year the universal designated hitter rendered the bunt superfluous, mostly because a bunt to Snitker is about as useful as a diving board aboard a Boeing 787.
Two seasons ago, Charlie Culberson attempted a bunt against Washington reliever Fernando Rodney. Culberson squared to bunt with his bat up high enough that the foul bunted ball caught him right in the kisser. That may have convinced Snitker even more that bunting should go the way of the streetcar. Though it’d be more fun to see streetcars come back than bunts to metastasise again.
An injury such as happened to Culberson is rather rare. But bunts would be entirely rare if Snitker has anything to say about it. Speaking for myself, I can think of only three times I’d really want a man at the plate dropping a bunt anymore, and I’ll get there in due course.
Essentially, baseball’s bunt is somewhat like football’s punt. Hands up to football fans who think it’s ridiculous for teams to punt on fourth down without at least a cursory stab at going for it when they’re a) inside enemy territory with seven or less to go; b) inside the enemy 33 with ten or less; or, c) fourth and four or less anywhere. (University of California-Berkeley economist David Romer thought of those scenarios, answering “yes.”)
In football—punt ball, surrender ball. In baseball—bunt ball, surrender out. “With even a successful bunt,” wrote Brian Kenny in Ahead of the Curve, his remarkable study of baseball foolishness, “you are giving up an out. It feels good—you can actually see your baserunner move closer to scoring. What you don’t see is that one-third of your resources have been spent.”
Between 1993 and 2010, Kenny observed, you could actually expect less than a run bunting with a man on first and no outs or a man on second with one out. (Man on first, no outs, and a bunt: 0.94 runs expected; man on second, one out, and a bunt: 0.72 runs expected.) In the same time frame, bunting with a man on first and nobody out and bunting with a man on second and one out accounted for less than half of the scoring.
“Even when the bunt moves the runner over,” Kenny wrote, “it lessens your chance of scoring a run. You are working against your own goals.” Managers bunted witlessly for decades, Kenny wrote, because of three benefits: ducking blame for failure, getting credit for success, and looking like geniuses doing it. Even if the next men up couldn’t cash in the run. Even though the manager handed the other team a gift.
That’s bad enough early in the game. In the late innings, if you haven’t emptied your bench yet, and you’ve got a comparative spaghetti bat due up to hit, you’d better pinch hit for that spaghetti bat with someone who isn’t on the payroll to bunt. (Keith Law, in Smart Baseball: “I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game because she really wants to see guys drop some sac bunts.”)
If you don’t have a spaghetti bat on deck but you’ve got a solid hitter who can do some clutch hitting, you’re not sending him up there to bunt . . . unless you’d like to try the impossible and get yourself beaten senseless by someone with two brain cells for which to arrange a dinner date. Why impossible? Because nobody can be beaten into a pre-existing condition.
If you’re foolish enough to send that solid hitter up with orders to bunt, and you have another solid bat behind him, that solid bat behind your bunter is liable to be put aboard on the house to set up a double play prospect. Unless you have a lineup of nine Mike Trouts, it forces you to hope that the lesser hitter to follow all that gets you the unlikely clutch hit. It’s not unheard of, of course, but it’s usually as likely as Alcoholics Anonymous opening a wet bar after a group meeting.
There are only three times to want anyone up there even thinking about bunting:
1) Against one of those defensive overshifts. Leaving your guy at the plate acres of virgin frontier, why not let him bunt? Hell—why not order him to bunt? Tell him you’ll shoot him doornail if he doesn’t bunt when presented with that.
Show me a bunt onto that delicious wilderness, I’ll show you a man on first at minimum, on the house. If they’re fool enough to open those plains with a man on, it’s first and second or better on the house. Show me enough bunts like those, I’ll show you the pending end of the overshifts.
Don’t be afraid of such a bunt even if the other guys have a no-hitter going in the late innings. They want to give you presents even with a no-hitter, take them. Let it be on their heads. If they want to arrest you for breaking one of the Sacred Unwritten Rules, tell them you’re not above a little Fun Police brutality.
2) Against infielders with weak throwing arms or concrete for hands. If the other guys have such infielders, you should really wonder whether their GM was kidnapped and replaced by Mr. Magoo.
Bunting against them may not be the kindest or gentlest play, and reaching on an error won’t do a thing for a batter’s final seasonal resume, but he’ll reach base of it. If there’s a man on, you’ll get someone closer to home if not coming home without wasting an out.
3) Against the other guys smelling bunt and putting the old wheel play on. Baseline fielders shoot down the lines, middle infielders run away from second base to cover the baseline pillows. If they put it on, show bunt, watch them shoot down and toward the lines—then pull back the minute the pitcher comes to the plate and just put the bat on the ball.
It was just such a fake bunt that Mets relief pitcher Jesse Orosco made into a six or seven hop single up the abandoned pipe to drive a second insurance run home in the bottom of the eighth in Game Seven, 1986 World Series. (Don’t start jumping up and down hollering “let the pitchers hit!”—Orosco was a lifetime .161 hitter who was probably lucky to average 22 plate appearances per 162 games in the first place.)
Now, if only Snitker would start or continue agitating for the universal designated hitter. Once and for all, let’s be done with all those pitchers at the plate making Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle. Let’s have Snitker and his peers relieved of the burden of watching their rallies getting murdered because their number eight bats got pitched around so the other guys’ pitchers can strike their peers out for side retired.
Myth busted, by the way: You can have speed on the bases without bunts. You usually try to bat the swiftest you’ve got leadoff, right? You can also have smarts on the bases without bunts. Put the swiftest and smartest man you have in the leadoff spot. Let him swat or walk his way aboard, then turn his tail loose. You don’t have to waste outs to do that.
Consider: Rickey Henderson. The arguable greatest leadoff hitter of the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era. The greatest speed merchant and larcenist the game may ever have seen. Not exactly one of the world’s most passionate bunters. (I calculated his batting average on bunts—BuBA—by dividing the bunts he beat out for hits by his total bunt attempts.)
You’d think a Hall of Famer who could fly like Superman up the line and around the bases might try more, right? Wrong. The Man of Steal wasn’t going to get all that much to bunt with in the first place. A man with 3,055 lifetime hits didn’t earn his bread and butter because he let anyone convince him, “Let’s work on those bunts, brah.”
Let’s not go there about “productive outs,” either. The only true situation where an out’s as good as a hit is a sacrifice fly. No batter’s going up to the plate with a man on third thinking to himself boy, those fools who said I couldn’t hit, I’ll show them—with a nice neat sacrifice fly. No fans pay their way into the ballpark to chant Sac fly! Sac fly! either.
The ground out pushing a runner or two closer to home? Sure, it’s nice. If and when it happens. That, too, gives you one less out to work with, and that wasn’t in your plans. Now tell me you wouldn’t rather have a base hit or a walk. If your answer’s yes, tell me you’d rather have two than three outs to work with in the ninth.
If your answer’s yes to that, you might be one of those thinking baseball was never better than when the ball was dead. Well, now. Let me show you the Show’s all-time bunt leader. (512 lifetime in 25 MLB seasons.) Let me show you what he did in a verifiable fifteen-year span. And, let me show you what it was really worth with that available record.
|Eddie Collins (1916-30)||222||184||168||16||.072|
Yep, I threw you a ringer. But bunt lovers deserve it. (Stathead Baseball, my source for Collins and Henderson, goes back only as far as 1916.)
Collins played almost two-thirds of his career in the dead ball era. Maybe from force of habit he kept up his bunt happiness as the live ball era kicked into overdrive, never mind that bunting just might have been more viable and effective in that dead ball time when among other things fielders’ gloves had about as much pocket as a pillow mattress and most pitchers threw about as hard as as bowlers.
Think about it. Collins remains baseball’s all-time volume bunter. With a .914 out percentage on his bunts, bunting with men in scoring position almost half the time he bunted, and an .072 bunt hit average. Want to know how many runs were added to his teams with those 184 bunts? How does -20 strike you?
This is no spaghetti bat, either. This is a Hall of Fame infielder who was a road runner on the bases, had six top-ten MVP finishes in seven shots (and won an MVP once), was a .333 hitter with a .400+ on-base percentage lifetime, and played on six pennant winners and five World Series winners. It wouldn’t be out of line for you to ask how much better his team’s scoring and chances to win might have been if he’d hit away instead of wasting those outs.
One more time: Outs to work with in baseball are commodities equal in value to jadeite on the mineral exchanges. (Yes, you can look it up: Jadite’s worth $3 million per carat now.) Bunting is waste enough by itself. Bunting in the late innings is worse. Bunting in the ninth inning when the value of outs to work with makes jadeite’s value resemble Reynolds Wrap’s should be cause for psychiatric evaluation.
Casey Stengel used to manage his Yankees according to the philosophy if you have an opening, shove with your shoulder. If you’re given the opening, as in the still-to-be free cookie on second base, you shouldn’t be thinking of nudging the runner along with a dinky, out-wasting bunt—you should be shoving with your entire body.
Swing away right out of the chute. Get that run home fast as you can. Make the other guys work to re-tie and win if they can. It’s easier to bust a tie than to overthrow even a one-run deficit, kiddies.
If teams do that often enough, maybe the free cookie on second to open the extra half-innings will go where the bunt should be except for the other three instances enunciated above. Into the same place where the Edsel reposes.