Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bunting against the shift

Carlos Santana drops one down for a single Tuesday.
Top of the third inning, two outs, nobody on. Carlos Santana, the Cleveland cleanup hitter, steps up to the plate against the pronounced shift he typically sees when hitting left-handed and promptly pushes a bunt to the vacated third base position.

Easy base hit.

In the Twins TV booth, Bert Blyleven is critical of Santana for bunting. The old pitcher's analysis: With two outs, Santana should be looking for extra bases. A bunt single doesn't put him in scoring position for the next guy (Lonnie Chisenhall in this specific example). The unspoken next step of this line of thought -- unspoken, at least, by Blyleven -- is that the bunt is a selfish play, executed less to help the team than to fatten Santana's meager batting average. (Santana is having the kind of season at the plate only a stat nerd can love: He leads the American League in walks and he has 15 homers, but he entered Tuesday's game batting just .205. He left it hitting .214.)

Later in the game, I am listening to the radio guys, and the Santana bunt comes up. Dan Gladden is almost enthusiastic about the bunt. Santana got on base, he kept the line moving. An unspoken thought in defense of the bunt: Beyond doubt, part of Santana's meager batting average is the heavy use of infield shifts against him. Some bunt singles might discourage teams from shifting.

There's merit in both viewpoints. Blyleven's right in this: Santana's three other hits Tuesday (a home run and a pair of doubles) did more to help Cleveland score runs than the bunt did. On the other hand, had Santana lined a single to the outfield, nobody would criticize him for merely getting a one-base hit. Hitting is difficult.

Personally, I'm fine with the play. It's not the optimal time for Santana to take a bunt hit (leading off the inning would be), but he's got to do something to get the third baseman back on left side of the infield and open up the right side. And he's got hitters behind him who can do some damage. Getting on base -- not making an out -- is the goal of hitting.

Moving beyond this specific case to the abstract: There appears to be a brainless dispute within the game about when it's appropriate to bunt against a shift.

Earlier this year, the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics got into a plunking war that was rooted in a bunt attempt by the A's Jed Lowrie with a 7-0 lead. The Astros responded by throwing at Lowrie.

This weekend, Colby Lewis, Texas pitcher, griped at Colby Rasmus, Toronto outfielder, for a bunt in essentially the same situation as Santana's bunt. (I can't resist; what's with these cheesy first names?)

My opinion: If it's appropriate for the defense to put on an exaggerated infield shift -- which are designed to take away singles; no infield shift is going to keep a home run ball in the park -- then it's appropriate for the batter to bunt against that shift.

The hitter is under no obligation to cooperate with the defense. Or the pitcher.

I suspect the pitchers unhappy with the opposition bunts are, in truth, unhappy with the shifts being deployed behind them. But they can't publicly vent about the manager giving away the bunt hit, so they direct their frustration at the guy taking what is given them. (Let it be noted that Lewis' ERA this year is 6.37, and Paul Clemens, the Astros pitcher who used Lowrie for target practice, has been up and down with an ERA of 6.08 in the majors. They can give up runs without their manager giving away the bunt.)

I know Tom Kelly thinks the shifts are overdone. But they are prevalent in today's game because they work. When enough hitters do what Santana did Tuesday often enough, the shifts will fade.


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