Baseball’s Endangered Species – Bunts

His book, Coaching Youth League Baseball, was written by College Hall of Fame Coach, Skip Bertman in 1975. Much of what he wrote about bunting is basically ignored today.

However, it is still relevant as an example of how the game should be taught and played at all levels of baseball – not try to catch up when a player reaches the Majors. What’s sad is that the “art” and value of the bunt as a “weapon” has been lost by the last two generations of players, coaches and managers.

Skip wrote, “The Major-League emphasis on the long ball and the big inning has caused the art of bunting to be neglected. However, every year as the play-off games begin and the World Series starts, we see professionals bunting in spite of the lively ball and artificial surfaces. The bunt will not score as many runs as the home run, but it is very often instrumental in the outcome of an important game.”

“Bunting is an important weapon for every team’s offense. Well-executed bunts can break a game wide open. The bunt-and-run can be an effective play. A hitter might surprise the defense and bunt for the base hit with no runners on base, or with two outs and a runner on third.”

“If a coach feels any play involving a bunt is called for, he should go ahead with it. Don’t pay any attention to the second-guessers who always seem to know what should have happened after the play is over. By using the bunt, your team can create many difficult situations for the defensive team, and if your opponents are not properly prepared, many mental mistakes and fielding errors will result.”

In 2016, MLB had the fewest Sacrifice Bunts (SH) per game (.21) in its history. The recording of SH started in 1894 and they have declined since then to what we have today. The numbers say the lack of SH is in the same boat with most Strikeouts (SO), which were also the most ever. In 2013, analysts criticized former Texas Ranger Manager, Ron Washington, because they thought he bunted too often. His response was, “They can take the analytics on that and shove it up their (expletive) (expletive).” That year, the Rangers had.28 SH per game, matching what was then the fewest in MLB history. Washington’s response was perfect, and agreed with Skip’s advice, “Don’t pay any attention to the second-guessers.”

In the book, 34-Ton Bat, by Steve Rushin, he quotes Casey Stengel, famous NY Yankee manager, in 1945, when he was a Minor-League manager. Casey said, “I get mad at the ball players today that can’t bunt.”

Funny, in those days, he was referring to a handful of players, and I wonder what Casey would say now about the futility of a clear majority of players that we must watch. Yes, I know, the game has changed, as today’s active generations consider bunting as “old school, small ball” and no longer relevant, but the facts trump yesterday’s “old fashioned” or today’s “new-fangled” opinions.

When the players don’t know how to bunt, when to bunt, or where to bunt, managers don’t know the value of bunts as a potential weapon, and both don’t care that they don’t know; they must consider them terrible things. They would be wrong! They have been sold a mind-set bill of goods about bunting, along with a host of other misinformed ideas that have gained wide acceptance over the past 40 years. Defenses today routinely ignore the possibility of a batter bunting for a base hit, because the batters have no understanding of the fact that in many circumstances they can dictate defensive positioning in future at bats by executing a well-placed bunt, but never make the attempt. There are ways to beat the exaggerated defensive shifts now being employed, but not with clueless players and managers. “Wee” Willie Keeler rightly said, “Hit ’em where they ain’t.” Bunt ’em where they ain’t, also works.

Being a good bunter is not easy; it is a learned skill that requires proper instruction and constant practice, just as all skills in baseball and other sports. The ability to bunt during batting practice has absolutely no relevance to bunting against a pitcher that is trying to get the batter out in a critical game situation. Without proper technique and confidence, the batter has little chance to be successful. That said, NL starting pitchers who play five or six times a month now do most of the sacrifice bunting, so if they can learn the basics of bunting surely position players can too.

An example of the commitment that may be necessary to have the proper skill set is what Coach Nellie Fox told his then Washington Senator’s Manager, Ted Williams about his process as a player to become an excellent bunter. “Doc Cramer (a former teammate of Williams with the Red Sox) used to make Fox carry a bat around as though it were a hot poker, with his thumb and forefinger as loose as possible. Fox said if Cramer suddenly tried to knock it out of his hands and couldn’t he’d ‘kick my butt.'”

Whatever the 5’6″, 160 lb. Fox did to be a better bunter it worked, because one year he bunted safely – for hits – in 26 of 30 attempts. This was accomplished although he wasn’t the fastest runner around averaging only 5 stolen bases and 5 caught stealing per year, which indicates that he excelled at the bunting three-legged stool, of how, when and where to bunt. In addition, he also averaged 14 SH and 15 SO per year, with never more than 18 SO. Since Fox was selected to play in 12 All-Star Games, was the American League’s Most Valuable Player in 1959, and inducted by the Veterans Committee into the Hall of Fame in 1997, his constant efforts to be a better player were obviously rewarded and being a good bunter was a weapon he used to great advantage. Nellie Fox was not the biggest, was not the strongest, was not the fastest player – he was indeed a BASEBALL player – always striving to improve.

Bunts can not only dictate defensive infielder’s positioning, but can also be a useful weapon to disrupt the rhythm of a pitcher. Get them off the mound to field their position, make throws to the bases, and cover 1st base. Disrupt them as much as possible. Bunts create threats that must be defended. When defended, holes open for base hits and other plays that would not normally be available. What Skip said, is worth repeating, “… if your opponents are not properly prepared, many mental mistakes and fielding errors will result.”

Nothing in baseball works all the time, however, bunts can be useful and productive, not terrible, things. Try ’em, you’ll like ’em.

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