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In search of baseball’s disappearing bunt

John Romano | Bunting is almost a lost art in MLB, but against exaggerated shifts it can be a useful weapon.
The Rays' Brandon Lowe bunt for a single during a spring training game against the Braves back in early April.
The Rays' Brandon Lowe bunt for a single during a spring training game against the Braves back in early April. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 14|Updated May 14

ST. PETERSBURG — The land looks curiously unoccupied and pleasing to the eye. A swath of green and orange stretching from second to third to home in a cone-shaped invitation to exploit.

Just one third baseman stands in charge of the property — would you call that one-eighth of an acre? — which seems remarkably negligent compared to the rest of the field.

And a thought occurs to you, not for the first time, in this shift-obsessed baseball era:

Can’t anybody around here drop a bunt?

This isn’t a Rays thing, it’s a baseball thing. Bunting hasn’t just become a lost art, it’s become a lost weapon, which seems like poor timing considering the shift often leaves one side of the infield mostly unguarded these days. Wouldn’t bunting into a shift be considered smart strategy?

“Absolutely,” said Rays general manager Peter Bendix.

“We spend a lot of time in the spring working on this,” said bench coach Matt Quatraro.

“They have full thumbs up and support from us to bunt,” said manager Kevin Cash.

So why, five weeks into the season, do the Rays have only one bunt hit?

There are a number of explanations that touch on psychology and circumstances and logistics but there is one answer that comes up in every single conversation about the topic.

Designated hitter Josh Lowe bunts in the second inning of an April 28 game against the Mariners at Tropicana Field.
Designated hitter Josh Lowe bunts in the second inning of an April 28 game against the Mariners at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

It just isn’t as easy as it looks. Fastballs at 98 mph at the top of the zone? Breaking pitches that fall off the table around your ankles? The unjustified stress of trying to drop the perfect bunt?

“I know how it looks, but with the pitching today, it’s hard,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. “I mean, hard.”

There’s a reason for that. Players spend their entire lives trying to prove they are the best hitter on any given field. They work on their swing day and night, in the cage and in the video room. They’re trying to impress scouts when they’re young, and you don’t do that by perfecting your bunting prowess.

Now, before going any further, it’s also important to separate the difference between a sacrifice bunt and bunting for a hit. The sacrifice used to be an accepted part of the game. Even in the designated hitter era, it wasn’t unusual for an American League team to have more than 100 sacrifice bunts in a season in the 1970s and 1980s. By comparison, in 2021, the Royals led the AL with 31 sacrifice bunts.

The explanation is simple. Analytics have proven that an offense is more likely to score a run with a man on first base and no outs, than with a man on second with one out. So mathematics killed the sacrifice.

But bunting for a hit is a different equation, particularly against a shifted infield.

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And so the Rays work on it diligently every spring, and they practice bunting at the start of every homestand. Because they don’t want to risk injury, they use a pitching machine when working on bunts to simulate, as best they can, the velocity and spin on pitches.

In the last five years, the average batting average for a bunt in play is .409. For the Rays, it’s even higher. Tampa Bay hitters have a .544 batting average on bunts since 2018.

But when I bring this up to Bendix, he includes an important distinction:

That average is only for bunts in fair territory. It doesn’t include when a hitter attempts a bunt that rolls foul for a strike and puts him behind in the count. As if on cue, Ji-Man Choi shortened up to bunt in the seventh inning Friday night and took strike one before striking out.

And, for a hitter, the idea of putting yourself in a hole at the start of an at-bat can be a difficult cost to reconcile.

“You’ve got to remember, that guy on the mound is still trying to make you miss,” said Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe, who has four bunt hits since 2019. “It’s not like he sees you squared and says, ‘Oh, okay, here you go.’ I mean, bunting is a lot harder than people think it is. But if you practice it a lot, get comfortable, and they’re playing back on you, then, yeah, you should go for it.”

Brandon Crawford and the Giants haven't been afraid to break out the bunts this season.
Brandon Crawford and the Giants haven't been afraid to break out the bunts this season. [ MATT YORK | Associated Press ]

The other consideration is what the bunt — or even an attempted bunt — does to an opposing shift. It won’t keep teams from overloading the right side of the infield for a lefthanded pull hitter, but it will affect where the third baseman plays. In a normal shift, the third baseman is basically playing in the shortstop’s spot. If there’s a chance the hitter will bunt, he’ll play on the grass closer to third base.

“I joke with the guys that I can smell the third baseman’s cologne because they’re always playing me in on the turf,” Kiermaier said. “So, for me, I have to put down a bunt that’s darn near perfect.”

But that, in itself, is something of a victory because it gives a hitter a more wide-open space for opposite-field grounders.

Which probably explains why the Giants seem to be exploiting the shift this season. With 10 successful attempts already, San Francisco is on pace for the most bunt hits in the majors in 15 years, and it’s not the typical speedsters getting it done. Lumbering left-handed hitters such as Mike Yastrzemski, Brandon Belt and Joc Pederson are helping themselves by taking advantage of what the defense is offering.

“I think there’s a mental block with some guys. They think, ‘If I’m going to get out, I want to try to do some damage with a double or a homer,’” Quatraro said. “You only get so many chances to hit and we’ve all been programmed to swing.

“So, like a lot of things, change isn’t always fast. We keep talking to them about it, and you’ll see Brandon try a bunt every so often, and KK will try one. In these tiny increments, we’re building out. It’s not going to be a massive overhaul, but it’s in the conversation.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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