david ortiz bunt

Does pride keep sluggers from bunting against the shift?


So, yeah, I don’t like the sacrifice bunt. I don’t like the way it’s scored. I don’t like the way managers use it. I don’t like percentages. I don’t like people’s hyper-eagerness to just give away an out, like it’s nothing, like it is actually worth just one base. I suspect I’ll be talking about all this at some length with Brian Kenny at 9:35 a.m. on his radio show.

But there is a kind of bunt I like, a kind of bunt I’d like to see players use more: The bunt against the shift.

Wait, let’s start with the NBA. From 1965 to 1980, as you probably know, Rick Barry shot underhand free throws. He made a rather extraordinary 89.3% in his career — but shot an even more incredible 92% his last six years. He got better as he got older. He was convinced — and he remains convinced — that anyone who takes the time to learn the underhand free throw and develops it can shoot 80% free throws, minimum. There is some science that backs him up.

Do you know much how much good 80% free throw shooting can do for some players? Last year, Dwight Howard averaged 17.1 points per game despite making just 49.2% of his free throws. He would have scored 222 more points total and averaged 20 points per game had he made 80% of his free throws. DeAndre Jordan made just 39% of his free throws — even at 70% he scores maybe 100 more points this past season and is an infinitely more valuable player at crunch time. Seventeen NBA players who averaged at least 20 minutes per game shot worse than 60%. I’m not saying this as some sort of old fogey “oh the kids today with their free throws” … I’m just saying: Why wouldn’t they TRY to shoot underhand?

The answer seems to be: It looks silly. It’s embarrassing. Great athletes simply find it intolerably demeaning to shoot a free throw underhand, like they were Betty White. For a little while, Wilt Chamberlain — a dreadful free throw shooter — tried the underhand method. It’s hard to find the numbers, but anecdotally there is some suggestion he improved a little bit from the line. Thing is, his heart wasn’t in it. Wilt Chamberlain shot 51% in his long career and still averaged 30.1 points per game. If he had shot 80%, he would have scored 3,400 more points and averages 33.4 points per game. Anyway, he did not stick with it. But he stopped shooting underhand because, as he wrote in his autobiography, “I slept with 20,000 women.” No, wait, he also wrote that shooting underhand free throws made him feel like a sissy, and the other players mocked him. Even an iconoclast like Wilt Chamberlain could not stand up to the intense pressure of not shooting underhand.

Rick Barry finds all this maddening. What’s a little taunting when you can SCORE MORE POINTS? In his mind, you are hurting your team and hurting yourself by not doing everything in your power to excel. It drives him crazy that players would rather miss free throws and look conventional than make free throws and look out of place.

So it brings us back to the bunt against the shift. As we know, it’s become more and more popular to play three infielders on the right side against power lefties … and put the third baseman close to shortstop. it’s proven to be quite effective against many players. But there is a way to beat it consistently. You could bunt the ball down the third base line. This works, even for players we have come to know as very slow. Three examples:

David Ortiz is 6-for-11 on bunts.

Jim Thome was 2-for-4 on bunts.

Jason Giambi was 2-for-3 on bunts.

We don’t have a lot of data for this because, of course, hitters rarely bunt against the shift. Ryan Howard never has. Josh Hamilton tried it once, unsuccessfully, and took much abuse over it. Ted Williams once bunted against the shift and it was national news, the Splinter giving in. He did not give in again. “Like Ruth before him,” John Updike would famously write of Williams pulling balls relentlessly into the teeth of the defensive shift, “he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles — a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.”

No, it’s not selfish … but the more interesting question: Is it productive baseball? How often would a player need to be successful on bunts against the shift for it to be clearly the better strategy. I asked our pal Tom Tango if he had some numbers for the occasion and, not surprisingly, he did. He looked specifically at situations with the bases empty.

“If you are successful on a bunt with bases empty,” he wrote, “you add +.26 runs. If you are out, it’s -.16 runs. If you are successful 60% of the time, then you have added: .26 x .60 – .16 x .40 = +.092 … And that’s pretty much the limit to what an exceptional hitter can add (with the bases empty). Therefore, ANYONE who can bunt at least 60% of the time into an open field (with bases empty) should do it every single time.”

This makes sense to me. But even if you don’t do it every time, why wouldn’t you bunt against the shift at least now and then. I mean LOOK AT THIS? I’m not saying it’s as easy as Robbie Cano makes it look there, but it’s an opportunity to get on base a very high percentage of the time. And as Bill James points out, it also could have the auxiliary benefit of stopping the other team from using the shift. Why wouldn’t hitters take greater advantage of that?

I think the reason few players bunt is two-fold. One, obviously, revolves around the Rick Barry underhand free throw. Bunting against the shift is embarrassing, it’s demeaning, it’s somehow admitting defeat. Of course, that’s the cunning power of the defensive shift. The shift in many ways is like the final Tom Cruise maneuver on Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” — it is a play on the subject’s ego and hubris and refusal to look weak. Nicholson, who clearly had no misgivings about lying through his teeth, only had to say, “No, I didn’t order the code red,” and Tom Cruise is off somewhere getting disbarred. But he didn’t. A batter has only to bunt a few balls down that third base line to completely destroy the defensive shift. But he doesn’t.

Two, baseball remains inextricably tied to what people want to believe. In so many ways, I think that’s why the sacrifice bunt is still such a viable baseball play — it’s because, it SHOULD be a good play. I mean, look, this guy’s giving himself up for the good of the team. This guy’s moving into scoring position. That should increase our chances of scoring! The inconvenient fact that it doesn’t increase chances of scoring — not mathematically, not historically, not at all — simply cannot overwhelm the optics.

And so speedy guys still keep getting put at the top of batting orders, and little guys who can’t necessarily hit but can “handle the bat” still hit second and the team’s best hitter are hitting third, and the bopper keeps hitting cleanup even though there are many, many reasons to believe (and many studies that prove) that this is a poor way to construct a lineup. Why? It SEEMS right. It feels right. It looks right. I mean the fast guy gets on, he steals second, the stick man hits behind the runner and moves him to third, the team’s best hitter hits a sacrifice fly … great inning, right?

People have to understand, logically, that pitchers don’t win games. But the pitcher win seems right. People have to know that walks are valuable. But, wait, don’t you see that Joey Votto only has 72 RBIs? People have to know that sluggers will help their team more by bunting and getting on base at a very high rate than by trying to bang ball into a tiny gap in a defensive shift. But, wait, then they won’t hit home runs. Baseball, very often, focuses on what SHOULD be true rather than what actually IS true.

Orioles say re-signing Chris Davis is “a top priority”

Chris Davis
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Last week impending free agent Chris Davis expressed frustration that the Orioles had not approached him about a contract extension during the season, pointing out that the team had previously locked up other players like J.J. Hardy and Adam Jones mid-season.

Now that the season is over and Davis had another monster year Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette told Eduardo Encina of the Baltimore Sun that re-signing Davis is “a top priority” and added:

He’s had a great year and he’s been a great player for us, so obviously, we’d like to have him back. Whether we can do that in the market, that remains to be seen, but we’re going to try.

Davis is 29 years old, has some defensive versatility, and has led the league in homers in two of the past three seasons while posting an .891 OPS during that time. He’s going to get plenty of huge multi-year offers and based on some of Duquette’s other quotes within Encina’s article it sure sounds like the Orioles are preparing for life without him.

Your 2015 batting and pitching leaders

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper (34) lines out to center during the first inning of a baseball game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park in Washington, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
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Playoff statistics are fun, but they’re almost all ephemeral. We fixate on them in October and into November for a bit and call them back up when prodded to in later years, but very few people can simply recite any of them. The regular season is different, however. Almost any fan can recall some regular season stats of their favorite players or notable league leaders and certainly record holders. Regular season stats have a permanence and weight to them that postseason stats really don’t.

So, with the regular season over, lets look at the leaders for the statistics we’ll actually remember. And yes, I start with the Triple Crown stats because six years from now that drunk guy at the bar next to you with whom you’ll be arguing will too, and you need to be prepared:


Batting Average: AL: Miguel Cabrera (.338); NL: Dee Gordon (.333)

Miguel Cabrera just continues to build on his Hall of Fame resume. His calf injury in July sapped his homer and RBI totals, but he once again was among the top hitters in all of baseball. I’d say he could fall out of bed and hit like an All-Star, but that understates things. He could fall of bed, break seven bones and still rattle the ball off of walls.

As for Gordon, he led the National League in batting and stolen bases, and no one in the NL has done that since Jackie Robinson did in 1949.


Home Runs: AL: Chris Davis (47); NL: Bryce Harper and Nolan Arenado (42)

Davis finished strong, with two homers in the season’s final game and enters free agency with his elite power hitter credentials back intact after an off 2014 season.

Harper’s status as the inevitable MVP winner is only partially a function of his longballs, but he hit a ton. Arenado, after yet another fantastic season with the bat and the glove should no longer be praised as “the best player you haven’t heard of.” Rather, you should be slammed as “that person who claims to be a baseball fan yet somehow hasn’t heard of Nolan Arenado.”


RBI: AL: Josh Donaldson (123); NL: Nolan Arenado (130)

Donaldson will likely win the AL MVP, but it won’t be merely because he was an RBI machine. Partially because he wasn’t and partially because MVP voters are smarter than that now. Arenado: two-thirds winner of the Triple Crown. If he takes some more pitches and sees some bounces go in his direction a bit more in future years he could win the whole dang thing.


On-Base Percentage: AL: Miguel Cabrera (.440); NL: Bryce Harper (.460)

Harper drew 124 walks on the year to go with his .330 average. Cabrera walked 77 times — tied for sixth — despite missing a big chunk of the season. Next time you hear some commentator or fan denigrating guys who “look to walk, not to hit,” go back and look through the season-by-season and all-time walks leaders and count the guys in those groups who weren’t elite hitters. You may find the occasional rando Rob Deer-type, but good hitters walk. Period.


Slugging Percentage: AL: Mike Trout (.590); NL: Bryce Harper (.649)

They say power develops later. Trout just turned 24. Harper will turn 23 in 11 days. Major League pitchers are likely living in fear of what comes later.


Stolen Bases: AL: Jose Altuve (38); NL: Dee Gordon (58)

Altuve’s 38 is the lowest total for a stolen base leader since Luis Aparicio led the AL with 31 in 1962. That includes strike-shortened years. But please, tell me about how today’s game is all about speed and contact and stuff like that.



Wins: AL: Dallas Keuchel (20); NL: Jake Arrieta (22)

Like Josh Donaldson’s RBI totals if, as I suspect, Arrieta wins the Cy Young Award it will be because of his full resume, not just his win total, as he was only 37th in run support among qualified starters. He earned a ton of those wins. As many have noted, Keuchel likes to pitch at home, snagging 15 of his 20 wins in Minute Maid Park. Good luck in the road start in the wild card game on short rest, Dallas.


ERA: AL: David Price (2.45); NL: Zack Greinke (1.66)

Greinke’s ERA was the lowest since Greg Maddux’s 1.63 in 1995. He is also the fifth straight Dodger to win it. The other four were Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw was third this year. For Price’s part, he had a lower ERA after joining the Blue Jays (2.3o) than he had while pitching for the Tigers (2.53). And he had a lower ERA in hitter-friendly Rogers Centre than he did in pitcher-friendly Comerica Park. Of course, for many of those Rogers Centre starts he didn’t have to face the Blue Jays’ bats, and that helps.


Strikeouts: AL: Chis Sale (274); NL: Clayton Kershaw (301)

Kershaw is the first pitcher to strike out 300 batters in a season since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling each did it in 2002. Kershaw’s K/9 ratio, however was 11.6, which is the same as The Big Unit’s in 2002. Schilling’s was 11.0.


Innings Pitched: AL: Dallas Keuchel (232); NL: Clayton Kershaw (232.2)

Keuchel’s 230 IP is the third lowest innings total for a league leader in a non-strike year in baseball history. The only ones lower: James Shields in 2013 (228.2) and David Wells in 1999 (231.2). Kershaw’s is the fourth lowest. It’s a different game now, you guys.


Complete Games: AL:  Mark Buehrle, Corey Kluber (4); NL: Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta (4)

All of these guys are now tied — with many other pitchers in the past couple of years — for the all-time record of the lowest total number of complete games which still led the league in complete games. The others who led the league with 4: David Price and Chris Sale in 2013, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum in 2009 and Brandon Webb in 2007.


Shutouts: AL: Felix Hernandez (2); NL: Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Jake Arrieta (3)

Given the way innings and complete games have gone I would’ve guessed that leading the league with two shutouts like King Felix did is really uncommon, but many, many times two has been enough in the last decade or so. Before that is when you start seeing the numbers climb.