Brian Snitker hates to bunt. He’s right

This gentleman despises bunting. So should you.

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.

The Man of Steal flew like Superman on the bases—mostly without bunting his way aboard, either.

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.)

Player Bunt Att. Bunts Outs Hits BuBA
Rickey Henderson 49 30 26 4 .082

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.

Player Bunt Att. Bunts Outs Hits BuBA
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.

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.