Baseball’s Long and Complicated Relationship With the Bunt
Despite claims that it’s self-defeating, as the playoffs heat up, the “small ball” strategy can go a long way toward winning the World Series. An Object Lesson.
Heather Locklear couldn’t stop staring. Neither could future Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. It wasn’t baseball slugger Mark McGwire himself who had them transfixed; it was what he had just done to a baseball. With a 34-inch, 33-ounce piece of ash lumber, McGwire had cracked a pitch with precision and sent the ball soaring like a cannon shot deep into the bleachers.
The year was 1998, the height of baseball’s steroid era (for which McGwire and his Popeye forearms have become a symbol), the same year McGwire trounced Roger Maris’s single-season home run record, once thought to be untouchable. (He hit 70 to Maris’s 61; Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa also broke the record that year, with 66.) Yet it would be five years before Michael Lewis’s bestseller, Moneyball, renounced baseball’s bunting technique as a strategic white elephant and a decade before that assertion lodged itself into baseball fandom’s psyche, making the sight of a hitter attempting a bunt the torment of most armchair hitting coaches. So when Glavine summarized Ms. Locklear’s reaction in that memorable Nike commercial, his observation was more perceptive than even he realized. If “chicks dig the long ball,” which he professed to his teammate Maddux, then nobody cares much for the bunt.
Baseball’s bunt—that quirky technique in which a hitter pivots to face the pitcher, grips his bat like a lacrosse stick, and tries to deaden the ball into that grassy no-man’s land in front of home plate—has been under attack for years. In the 1870s, when it first emerged as a viable strategy, fans jeered that it was effeminate. In 1904, President William Howard Taft publicly scorned the bunt, preferring instead to see players “hit it out for all that is in them.” And decades before Moneyball profiled Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his condemnation of the tactic, peer-reviewed articles in publications like Operations Research had already concluded that teams produce more runs when players swing away. The bunt, in other words, isn’t just boring; it’s bad baseball.
Yet every fall, when the toil of 162 games begins to wear out the muscles of big sluggers and only playoff pitchers take the mound, the bunt reemerges. Sometimes it even helps determine a champion. In 1997, the Baltimore Orioles missed out on their first World Series appearance in more than a decade because they couldn’t execute a seventh-inning bunt. In 2001, during what was arguably the most thrilling Fall Classic ever played, legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera threw away New York’s chance at a four-peat when he fielded a ninth-inning sacrifice bunt and threw the ball into center field. In 2012, the San Francisco Giants swept the heavily favored Tigers and their quarter-billion dollar slugger Miguel Cabrera on a steady dose of “small ball”—stolen bases, hit-and-runs and, yes, bunts.
In this year’s playoffs, we’ll no doubt see both the home run and the bunt. Hitting it over the fence will induce excitement and envy. The bunt? Tirades and tantrums and many a scathing blog post. And each will likely cite empirical data in the name of sound strategy. But perhaps those reactions correlate to our feelings about the home run. Perhaps our feelings toward the bunt have much deeper roots.
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Some credit Harry Wright, the player-manager of the Cincinnati Base Ball Club, with inventing the bunt in the 1860s. But like baseball itself, the bunt enjoys a folklore that often obscures accurate retelling. Even the name of the technique—bunting—has competing origins. Did it evolve from early claims that players were using their bats to butt the ball forward, or did the name derive from mocking comparisons to a tiny bird, a bunting?
Baseball researcher and author Peter Morris thinks the latter is more likely. According to his two-volume baseball encyclopedia, A Game of Inches, the bunt developed in tandem with another 19th century baseball technique: the fair-foul. At that time, baseball rules deemed any ball a fair one so long as it first struck the ground in fair territory, inside those white chalk lines we still use today. Fans of the game loved powerful swings back then, too, so less gifted players turned to ingenuity. Using their flat bats (which were legal), they swiped at pitches from odd angles to put English on the ball—like a billiard player would—and send it skirting into foul ground. If executed correctly, the result was a sure base hit. That is until infielders, especially third basemen, countered by re-positioning themselves in foul ground. Which invited another counter: bunting. Dickey Pearce, shortstop for the Brooklyn Atlantics, perfected the fair-foul in the late 1860s, though he always opted for a rounded bat. He’s also the more likely pioneer of the bunt.
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.
Sabermetrics came down hardest on the bunt, especially the sacrifice. When powerful men in baseball, like the A’s Billy Beane and the Cubs’ Theo Epstein, became loyal sabermetrics disciples, number crunching did to the bunt in the late 20th century what new rules and catcher’s masks did in the late 19th. Since 1992, the frequency of the sac-bunt has dropped almost 40 percent, and there were fewer last year than in any season in recorded baseball history.
It’s no wonder, then, that Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon called bunting a lost art at this year’s spring training. Its continued presence in baseball reflects a tension between art and science, between playing the numbers and playing by feel. Players and managers have to choose a side. In the regular season they tend to defer to the numbers. In October, they often favor the feel. Even Derek Jeter, a 14-time All-Star whose playoff hitting performances have earned him the moniker Mr. November, bunts almost twice as frequently in the postseason. And while every major-league ball club has a stable of experts dedicated to running the numbers, which ought to never lie, the artist must by definition eschew statistical criteria. The artist must accept that their art often defies explanation.
Given the bunt’s relevance in the playoffs, I wonder if its criticisms go beyond the numbers, too. For example, the bunt is decried because it jeopardizes a team’s precious outs in exchange for a small payout, a single at best. This kind of cost/benefit analysis takes no account of the bunt’s cumulative effects, such as its ability to open up bigger holes for later at-bats, to frustrate a pitcher’s rhythm, and to jolt a hitter’s self-confidence. It also rests on two assumptions. First, that a player swinging for a hit isn’t already throwing his out away. Any player who’s been mired in a slump will tell you: In some cases he might have been as likely to get a hit if he’d stepped up to the plate without a bat in his hands. Second, that the player most likely to field a bunt and the worst fielder on the defense, the pitcher, won’t literally throw the ball away under the pressure of the moment, the way Mariano Rivera did in that 2001 World Series.
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Beneath these assumptions might linger changing attitudes toward work and its rewards. Bunting, it turns out, isn’t that easy. According to Fangraphs, a website that compiles baseball statistics, fewer than half of bunt attempts are even put in fair play, let alone achieve their intended purpose. Bunting isn’t glamorous and craftsmanship alone is now little reward. At around the time of the bunt’s advent, Abraham Lincoln wrote to a friend: “Work, work, work, is the main thing.” Today, Housewives and celebutantes are paid handsomely to not work—and we eat it up. Young players now face the prospect of honing a craft, perhaps to be criticized even when it succeeds. They can’t help but wonder, what’s the point?
The home run, by contrast, is associated with strength and masculinity. Baseball is, after all, the only sport whose progress metrics map directly to sex. In those terms, the strike out, not the bunt, might look like the home run’s antithesis, but at least the player who strikes out is going down swinging. How much can we respect the hitter who doesn’t even try? If the home run symbolizes sexual fruition, then the bunt signals impotence.
Yet each October ushers in its own catharsis, with a predictability that will satisfy any statistician. Temperatures will cool, leaves will fall, and with them baseball teams will drop from championship contention. Those that remain must account for those baby bunts. Sometimes they defy logic. Sometimes they change everything.
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