david ortiz bunt

Does pride keep sluggers from bunting against the shift?

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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.

Report: Rangers interested in Royals’ Edinson Volquez

ST. LOUIS, MO - JUNE 29: Starter Edinson Volquez #36 of the Kansas City Royals pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the first inning at Busch Stadium on June 29, 2016 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
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Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports that the entire Rangers “inner circle of front office personnel” was on hand to watch Edinson Volquez start for the Royals against the Rangers on Sunday. Volquez went six innings, giving up a lone run on seven hits and three walks with three strikeouts.

Volquez, 33, is earning $9.5 million this season and can become a free agent after the season if his team chooses to buy him out for $3 million instead of picking up their end of his $10 million mutual option for 2017. GM Jon Daniels said he was hoping the club would be able to avoid considering rentals, but as the club has dealt with injuries, the strength of the starting rotation has become a concern. Colby Lewis and Derek Holland are both on the disabled list. Yu Darvish has made only five starts since making his season debut in late May. Meanwhile, Kyle Lohse — who has given up 13 runs in two starts — has occupied the back of the rotation. A reliable starter would go along way towards helping the 57-42 Rangers fight to keep first place in the AL West.

Jon Morosi of FOX Sports also reports that the Rangers have shown interest in young Phillies right-hander Vince Velasquez, but they would pay a much higher price for him than for Volquez. Velasquez has a 3.34 ERA with a 103/34 K/BB ratio in 91 2/3 innings for the Phillies this season.

Report: Cubs, Yankees agree on Aroldis Chapman trade

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 17:  Aroldis Chapman #54 of the New York Yankees delivers a pitch in the ninth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on July 17, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Update (12:28 PM EDT): CSN Chicago’s Patrick Mooney reports that 22-year-old outfielder Rashad Crawford is also headed to the Yankees. Crawford is not ranked among the Cubs’ best prospects. This season, at Single-A Myrtle Beach, he has hit .255/.327/.386 with 29 extra-base hits, 30 RBI, and 59 runs scored in 370 plate appearances.

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The deal between the Cubs and Yankees involving closer Aroldis Chapman, first reported on Sunday, is complete according to Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball. The Cubs will get Chapman while the Yankees will receive infield prospect Gleyber Torres, outfield prospect Billy McKinney, pitcher Adam Warren, and one more as yet unnamed player. Despite what yesterday’s report indicated, there is no contract extension for Chapman, so he can become a free agent after the season.

Torres, 19, is rated the Cubs’ #1 prospect and #24 overall in baseball by MLB Pipeline. The shortstop has spent the season with Single-A Myrtle Beach, batting .275/.359/.433 with nine home runs, 47 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 19 stolen bases in 409 plate appearances. The Cubs, however, already have Addison Russell at shortstop and have middle infield prospect Ian Happ.

McKinney, 21, is the Cubs’ #5 prospect and #75 overall in baseball. This season, with Double-A Tennessee, he has put up a .252/.355/.322 triple-slash line with 16 extra-base hits, 31 RBI and 37 runs scored in 349 PA. He suffered a hairline fracture in his right knee last year, which might explain why he’s been a bit lackluster with the bat this season.

Warren, 28, is a former Yankee as the club sent him to the Cubs in the Starlin Castro trade over the winter. He’s been unremarkable in one start and 28 relief appearances for the Cubs, posting a 5.91 ERA with a 27/19 K/BB ratio in 35 innings. Warren, earning $1.7 million this season, has two more years of arbitration eligibility remaining.

Since returning to the Yankees, Chapman has recorded 20 saves in 21 chances with a 2.01 ERA and a 44/8 K/BB ratio in 31 1/3 innings. Andrew Miller will likely move into the closer’s role with Dellin Betances setting up the eighth inning for the Yankees.

[Content note: The following will contain descriptions of an incident during which Chapman allegedly assaulted his girlfriend.]

Chapman, 28, served a 30-game suspension beginning at the start of the regular season due to an offseason incident during which he allegedly choked his girlfriend and fired off eight gunshots in his garage. The police didn’t file official charges.