Pearce’s success caught the attention of fans and reporters, and their reactions were mixed. In 1873 The Boston Globe called bunting “the black game,” an acknowledgment of one’s “weakness at the bat,” and a few years later the Detroit Free Press called it a “babyish performance.” A reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle disagreed. Fans did sneer, that account confessed, but “[t]he object of the batsman is to reach first base, and if by any style of hitting he can send the ball fairly to the field, and in such a way that it cannot be … fielded to first base in time to put him out, he earns his base by skilful, scientific hitting. The real baby hits are those which give easy chances for [outs].” Players took notice, too, and the bunt’s use in games soared.
Few, however, had mastered the skill like Pearce. Many began using the technique for a different purpose, one that galvanized its critics: to foul off a pitcher’s best offerings until, frustrated and physically spent, the pitcher threw outside the strike zone four times—a walk. The bunt and the walks it induced were changing the way the game was played.
Then new rules changed the technique forever. The fair-foul was banned after the 1876 season. In 1886, umpires were given the authority to call strikes on deliberate attempts to foul off a pitch. It proved tough, however, for umpires to gauge intent, and calls to outlaw the bunt altogether grew louder. Instead, baseball’s rules committee banned the flat bat in 1893. And the next year, any foul bunt was deemed a strike, regardless of the batter’s intent. Since that amendment, any batter with two strikes can swing and foul off pitches indefinitely; if he bunts a ball foul with two strikes, he’ll be called out. Not long after Pearce’s retirement in the 1870s, these rule changes, coupled with technological advancements like the catcher’s mask and a more tightly wound ball, relegated the bunt to a niche specialty. It has never fully recovered.
Yet as it did in the 1870s, the bunt remains a sort of equalizer for the talent deficient, albeit one that’s now harder to pull off. The 20th century’s most prolific bunter, Brett Butler, had a 17-year career in the major leagues. At a spindly 5’10”, 160 pounds, Butler never hit more than nine home runs in a season. Yet in his career he bunted for a base hit 226 times at a 51-percent rate per attempt. As a comparison, in today’s game if a player gets a hit—any hit—at a 3-for-10 clip, he’s considered a success. Butler’s success rate on sacrifice bunts was much higher.
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Brett Butler retired in 1997. More recently, specialists like him have had to fend off a new threat: sabermetrics. Baseball has always been a game obsessed with numbers. But sabermetrics, a term coined in 1980 by statistician Bill James in honor of the Society for American Baseball Research, strives to use every available technology to study baseball empirically—its players, its strategies, the statistics themselves. Which performance measure, the sabermetrician asks, most closely correlates to the bottom line: wins and losses? In pursuit of this question, new metrics like WAR (“Wins Above Replacement”) and DRS (“Defensive Runs Saved”) have replaced more traditional stats like batting average and stolen bases.