Thursday, July 1, 2010

The beauty of the bunt

Last September I wrote a screed about the silliness that day of sac bunting on the road when behind.

For most of the winter, another blog's approving link to that post was one of the most prominent results when I Googled "baseball outsider." Even now, it's on the second page.

I find that ironic, because in the realm of Internet baseball writing, I'm about as bit a fan of the bunt as you're going to find. I just didn't like it that day, for very specific reasons, detailed in that post.

Wednesday, the Twins used the bunt in a way that I applaud, and in a way that was extremely profitable.

Bottom of the fifth, score tied. Nick Punto gets an infield single. Drew Butera bunts; Detroit pitcher Andrew Oliver throws high; Detroit's Carlos Guillen can't keep his foot on the bag (photo); Butera is safe on the error. Span bunts; this time the Tigers get the out, but Punto and Butera advance. Orlando Hudson plates Punto with a fly ball, Delmon Young drives in Butera with a single, Twins lead 3-1.

I like this sequence because:

  • Butera (.178/.213/.267) is as weak a hitter as plays a position. Might as well trade his inevitable out for a base.
  • Oliver is a rookie power pitcher. Power pitchers are generally not good fielders; bunting gives the kid more opportunity to screw up.
  • Span's bunt came not with the Twins behind but with them tied. Play for the win on the road, for the tie at home. And the second point remained valid. Let's try to force Oliver to make a play. (It was the catcher who handled Span's bunt.)

This comes from this year's edition of the Bill James Gold Mine:

Denard Span bunted 27 times in 2009, the most bunts in play of any American League player. Twelve of those were sacrifice bunts. Of the other 15, 10 were singles — a .667 batting average on efforts to bunt for a hit, or .370 if you include the 12 sacrifices.

Sabermetricians are often critical of the bunt, arguing that the sac bunt, even when successful, reduces the number of times the team can expect to score. But this misses a critical point: that the "Denard Span" bunt, where you're really bunting for a hit but you'll take the sacrifice as a by-product of failure, is a very good play. If there's a runner on first and nobody out and you try to bunt for a hit, you only have to bunt about .275 to make it a good play — assuming that you'll get the sac bunt even if the effort for a hit doesn't work. A good bunter can bunt much more than .275 — making it a good play.

I go beyond James in applauding the bunt, because I believe there are a lot of pitchers and corner infielders — even in the major leagues — who are uncomfortable dealing with bunts. Butera didn't get a hit, but he reached on an error and scored a run as a result.

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