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.

A-Rod’s mansion is featured in Architectural Digest

Alex Rodriguez
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For a couple of years people worried if A-Rod would sully the Yankees Superior Brand. Given how they’re playing these days I wonder if A-Rod should be more worried about the Yankees sullying his brand.

He resurrected his baseball career last year. He’s cultivated a successful corporate identity. He’s in a relationship with a leading Silicon Valley figure. It’s all aces. And now it’s total class, as his home is featured in the latest issue of Architectural Digest:

Erected over the course of a year, the 11,000-square-foot retreat is a showstopper, with sleek forms and striking overhangs that riff on midcentury modernism, in particular the iconic villas found at Trousdale Estates in Beverly Hills. Unlike Rodriguez’s previous Florida home, the Coral Gables house is laid out on just one story so the interiors would connect directly to the grounds. Says Choeff, “Alex wanted to accentuate the indoor-outdoor feel.”

There are a lot of photos there.

I don’t think I have much in common with Alex Rodriguez on any conceivable level, but I do like his taste in architecture and design. I’m all about the midcentury modernism. Just wish I had the paycheck to be more about it like my man A-Rod here.

Video: Yadier Molina does pushups after being brushed back, gets hit

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The best part of this sequence is not that Molina successfully evaded an inside pitch or that, in doing so, he hit the dirt and did some pushups. It’s not even the part where, after that, het got back up and knocked a single to left field.

No, the best part is the applause from the crowd. Very respectful fan base in St. Louis. They’d even applaud an opposing player who showed such a great work ethic. Or so I’m told.

 

Justin Verlander and Kate Upton are engaged

Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander, left, and model Kate Upton pose for a photograph during second half NBA All-Star Game basketball action in Toronto on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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Justin Verlander and Kate Upton have been a couple for a long time. And dudes like me have been writing about them for a long time because, well, Justin Verlander and Kate Upton.

They’ve fallen a bit off the radar in recent years thanks to Verlander taking a step back from Cy Young contender status and Upton’s profile likewise receding a bit, but if anything that probably helped things out given how hard it probably is to live a life with paparazzi hovering every time you want to out and get a burger or something.

In any event, those two crazy kids have made it work. Made it work so well that Verlander gave Upton a big fat rock that she showed off at last night’s Met Ball, which is a fundraising gala for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Check it out:

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When you’re on a $180 million contract you can afford stuff like that, I guess.

Anyway, it looks like Upton enjoyed the fancy, star-studded gala in New York. I’m sure Verlander had a good time on the Tigers’ off-day in Cleveland. There’s a lot to do in Cleveland if you know where to look.

And That Happened: Monday’s scores and highlights

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon yells toward Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Kyle Lobstein after Cubs' Ben Zobrist was hit by a pitch in the seventh inning of a baseball game, Monday, May 2, 2016, in Pittsburgh. The Cubs won 7-2. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cubs 7, Pirates 2: Plunky Brewster. Archie Plunker — no, Archie Plunker’s Place.  Plunkingham Palace. Fran Plunkington. I dunno, but there was plunking here, starting with Jason Hammel hitting Starling Marte to lead off the sixth followed by Kyle Lobstein hitting Ben Zobrist in the seventh. Hard to deny that Hammel hitting Marte wasn’t retaliation for Tony Watson hitting Jake Arrieta in the Wild Card Game last year, though I’m sure everyone denied it. Boys will be boys. Hammel allowed two runs pitching into the sixth and his ERA almost doubled, which tells you how good he’s been in the early going.

Rangers 2, Blue Jays 1: Nomar Mazara won April’s Rookie of the month award yesterday afternoon and several hours later hit a tiebreaking home run in the top of the eighth. Then, in the bottom of the eighth, he threw out a dude at home plate. Not a bad day for the kid. This was also a playoff rematch that had the potential for a plunking. Some think the Rangers still want to hit Jose Bautista for the infamous bat flip last October. Maybe it’ll come later in the series when the game is not as close, but for now the Rangers are probably pretty happy with him going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.

Giants 9, Reds 6: Johnny Cueto returned to Cincinnati to pitch in front of his old home crowd. He didn’t pitch well, giving up six runs in five innings, but you have a bit of a margin for error against this Reds teams. The Giants bats supplied the margin, rattling out 14 hits, including Brandon Crawford‘s three-run homer in the seventh to put the Reds Giants ahead. He added a fourth RBI in the ninth for some insurance.

Mets 4, Braves 1: Mike Foltynewicz got called up yesterday to make his first big league start of the year. He was greeted by a four-run first inning. Gwinnett County is in the same time zone as New York so you can’t blame jet lag, but maybe he got some bad shortbread cookies on the flight or something. Or maybe, based on the fact that he sucked in 15 starts last year, he’s simply not that great. Maybe if these are the 1988 Braves all over again, as I’ve hoped and suspected, he’s our Kevin Coffman: the guy purported to have great stuff and a great future who just got eaten alive by big league pitching before disappearing into witness protection. Meanwhile, Bartolo Colon — who is way closer in age to Kevin Coffman than Mike Foltynewicz — tossed eight shutout innings.

Brewers 8, Angels 5: Jimmy Nelson had two hits including a go-ahead RBI single. He also allowed only two runs over seven innings and got the win. The Brewers got their runs in bunches, with four in the fifth and four in the sixth.

Twins 6, Astros 2: The Twins, who started the season with a notable losing streak and are considered to be among the top underachievers of the young season, now have the same record as the Astros who were favored by many to win the AL West and who most have said “it’s OK, they’ll come around.” And it’s not because the Twins have turned into world-beaters in the past couple of weeks. I’m not saying it’s time to panic in Houston or anything, but eww. Jose Berrios got his first career win, giving up two runs on three hits with eight strikeouts in five and a third. Much better than his debut.

Nationals 2, Royals 0: Four in a row for the Nats as Gio Gonzalez and the bullpen combine on a five-hit shutout. The Royals have lost six of seven. Three of those losses have been shutouts.

Cardinals 10, Phillies 3: Adam Wainwright provided the game’s biggest highlight with a monster homer. The Cards hit five homers in all. When Wainwright was asked about his homer later he used the term “ducks on the pond” to refer to men on base when he came to bat. Which makes me think that Wainwright is 86 years-old. Seriously, I’m pretty sure he started Game 3 of the 1964 World Series against the Yankees. He was really salty when his manager, Johnny Keane, left St. Louis to take over for Yogi Berra in New York the following year. Everything turned out OK, though.

Mariners 4, Athletics 3Nathan Karns gave up three runs while pitching into the seventh. The M’s won for the fifth straight time in the Coliseum. They may be the only ones who like it there. Not that I can or should slam the place. I’m taking my kids on vacation to California next month and I’m taking them to a game there. I could just as easily take them to a Giants game at AT&T but I sort of want them to see what it was like to go to a ballgame in some weird multi-use place with a better proletariat-to- bourgeoisie ratio like I did in the 70s and 80s.

Padres 2, Rockies 1: Matt Kemp hit a two-run double in the first inning and it held up thanks to James Shields allowing one run over six. Shields has gotten seven runs in support in his six starts this season.