Monday, March 20, 2006

Bunting Seems Now To Be An Expensive Option On Today's Ballplayers

Does anyone know how to bunt anymore?

I mean, anyone older than Little League-aged, that is.

People who know me will tell you I sound like a broken record -- or a scratched CD for the youngens -- when it comes to this rant. I am continuously appalled by the lack of bunting ability at the major league level, which must mean there's a lack of bunting ability in all levels of ball, because if you cannot bunt by the time you get to the big leagues, that means you couldn't bunt in amateur ball, the low minors, or AAA, either. Because if you COULD, you'd be a good bunter in the majors.

I don't know if players aren't being taught bunting properly, or if they simply don't retain it, or if the teachers themselves are starting to come from the non-bunting generation. Regardless, it's becoming so bad -- all this lack of bunting skill -- that it's practically accepted.

"Well, here comes Johnson to the plate, and you can forget about the bunt with him up there," an announcer might say about some slugger who steps to the plate in the late innings with a man on first base with no outs -- a prototypical bunting situation.

Say what? "Forget about the bunt"? Simply because slugger Johnson doesn't "do" bunting?

Well, yeah -- that's what we're asked to abide.

I don't think any ballplayer should be above bunting, nor be excused from it. Some situations simply don't call for swinging for the fence. Yet when certain players -- and that list is growing exponentially, unfortunately -- come to the plate, the defense doesn't even pretend to play for a bunt. Infielders stay resolute in their "deep" positions. Even the third basemen, for these hitters, think nothing of practically playing in shallow left field, let alone sneaking in for a bunt.

Rare is it that a batter will actually bunt at all, and when he does, he's likely to look like it's his first bunt attempt since ... Little League: bat awkwardly placed at the wrong angle; hands positioned bizarrely on the bat; poor technique as the pitch arrives -- like he's trying to smush a bug on the kitchen table rather than actually bunting. It gets so bad sometimes that I find myself hoping I never see that batter try to bunt again.

On the other hand, a fine bunter -- a deft handler of the bat -- is pure joy to behold. The fine bunter keeps his bat parallel to the ground, allows the ball to hit the bat rather than the other way around -- in order to deaden the ball, and knows how to drop it down the third base line or drag it toward first. The fine bunter is not a walk in the park to retire - even though his goal is sacrifice rather than base hit -- because his bunt is so well-placed and so well-executed, it needs a good, solid defensive play to throw him out. Yes, the fine bunter I can live with -- and with enthusiasm. The Goofus bunter, I haven't much use for.

But the Goofuses seem to be outnumbering the Gallants, and that's not a good thing.

I also wonder why today's manager isn't expressing more outrage over the fact that most likely less than 50% of his players can bunt properly. I mean, doesn't that take away a good portion of
his late-inning strategical options? Maybe today's manager realizes he's fighting a losing battle, with so many players being non-bunters.

Hey, you can send for me, coach -- I was a pretty good bunter back in the day.


10. Rick Monday (Cubs/Los Angeles). Struck out a lot, but a good clutch hitter who caught just about everything.
9. Willie Wilson (Kansas City). Fleet of foot, gifted with the glove. Wilson was a rarity in that he played good centerfield well into his 30's. Crashed and burned in the 1980 World Series (.154 with 12 strikeouts), but made up for it with solid play in the '85 Series that the Royals won (.367 with 11 hits).
8. Chet Lemon (Detroit). Chester Lemon may have been one of the game's worst baserunners, but he made up for it with stellar centerfield play. He handled the largess of Tiger Stadium's Death Valley brilliantly. Not possessed with a rifle arm, but he could hold his own in that department. A rather steady hitter with some pop.
7. Mickey Stanley (Detroit). Stanley, at his best, was one of the best fielding CFs ever. But his versatility enslaved him, and he drifted away from centerfield in order to play different positions -- especially later in his career. Slightly inconsistent with the bat, however.
6. Fred Lynn (Boston/California). Lynn was great at making circus catches, but that wasn't all to his game. He positioned himself nicely, which meant he was always ready to catch and throw. Who can forget his grand slam in the 1983 All-Star game that helped the AL break an 11-year losing streak?
5. Andy Van Slyke (St. Louis/Pittsburgh). For all his self-effacing humor, Van Slyke was a wonderful ballplayer -- and a terrific centerfielder. He was a tall, lanky guy who could chase down flyballs with the best of them.
4. Dale Murphy (Atlanta). Murphy was an underrated player whose consistency worked against him, when it came to accolades. He just came to the ballpark, did his job, and went home. But, at one time, several GMs would have built an expansion team around him.
3. Kirby Puckett (Minnesota). The late Puckett was not your quintessential centerfielder. He was roly-poly, stocky, and not terribly gifted with speed. But he made up for it all with effort, hustle, and smarts. Deadly, at times, with the bat. Hall of Famer.
2. Paul Blair (Baltimore). There was a reason Paul Blair played some of the most shallow centerfield ever: he was good enough to get away with it. Blair patrolled CF as if he was born to do it. A good hitter, too -- who could hit some homers, which was mandatory when you played for Earl Weaver's Orioles teams.
1. Robin Yount (Milwaukee). Yount started as a shortstop -- and was a pretty good one, too -- before becoming entrenched as a centerfielder. He made the move almost seamlessly. Yount, for my money, was one of the ten best players I've ever seen -- regardless of position.

Tomorrow: Starting pitchers


Blogger beefshower said...

I once met Mickey Stanley when he was a special guest at my Little League Field. He was late, drunk and swore at me before they asked him to leave. He may have been a good CF but I hate that guy.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...

Wow -- I always thought Mickey was a good guy. Thanks for the visit and the comment!

1:02 PM  
Blogger Ian C. said...

He could be a frustrating guy to watch, but I loved seeing Alex Sanchez bunt when he played for the Tigers. He really seemed to scare infielders when he had it going.

I'm not a sabermetrics guy, so if one could back me up on this, I'd appreciate it. I think one of the reasons there's not as much bunting done is that it just doesn't better the chances of scoring a run. You're better off going for a hit.

Now, I think there are situations where a bunt is definitely called for. A late inning in a tie ballgame, for example. But I think managers have to realize when it's necessary, too. Mike Scioscia is one guy who seems to "get it." Alan Trammell wasn't.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Greg Eno said...


You MAY be right, but what is a manager to do in those late inning situations when a bunt should be the ONLY decision? The funny thing is, those guys who can't bunt usually end up striking out or popping out, or making some other out that doesn't move the runner.

12:11 PM  

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