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.

Jorge Posada highlights 16 one-and-done players on Hall of Fame ballot

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 24:  Jorge Posada addresses the media during a press conference to announces his retirement from the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on January 24, 2012 in the Bronx borough of  New York City.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada received only 17 total votes (3.8 percent) on the 2017 Hall of Fame ballot. Unfortunately, he is one of 16 players who fell short of the five percent vote threshold and is no longer eligible on the ballot. The other players are Magglio Ordonez (three votes, 0.7 percent), Edgar Renteria (two, 0.5 percent), Jason Varitek (two, 0.5 percent), Tim Wakefield (one, 0.2 percent), Casey Blake (zero), Pat Burrell (zero), Orlando Cabrera (zero), Mike Cameron (zero), J.D. Drew (zero), Carlos Guillen (zero), Derrek Lee (zero), Melvin Mora (zero), Arthur Rhodes (zero), Freddy Sanchez (zero), and Matt Stairs (zero).

Posada, 45, helped the Yankees win four World Series championships from 1998-2000 as well as 2009. He made the American League All-Star team five times, won five Silver Sluggers, and had a top-three AL MVP Award finish. Posada also hit 20 or more homers in eight seasons, finished with a career adjusted OPS (a.k.a. OPS+) of 121, and accrued 42.7 Wins Above Replacement in his 17-year career according to Baseball Reference.

While Posada’s OPS+ and WAR are lacking compared to other Hall of Famers — he was 18th of 34 eligible players in JAWS, Jay Jaffe’s WAR-based Hall of Fame metric — catchers simply have not put up the same kind of numbers that players at other positions have. That’s likely because catching is such a physically demanding position and often results in injuries and shortened careers. It is, perhaps, not an adjustment voters have thought to make when considering Posada’s eligibility.

Furthermore, Posada’s quick ouster is somewhat due to the crowded ballot. Most voters had a hard time figuring out which 10 players to vote for. Had Posada been on the ballot in a different era, writers likely would have found it easier to justify voting for him.

Posada joins Kenny Lofton in the “unjustly one-and-done” group.

Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Ivan Rodriguez Elected to the Hall of Fame

1990:  Outfielder Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos in action. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule  /Allsport
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The 2017 induction class of the Baseball Hall of Fame was announced Wednesday evening and we have three inductees: Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez. Raines and Bagwell had to wait a good long while to get the call. Rodriguez is in on his first year of eligibility. But nowhere on the plaque will it say how long it took. All that matters now is that three of the greatest players of their respective generations finally have a place in Cooperstown.

Players must be named on 75% of the Baseball Writers Association of America’s ballots to get in. Raines was named on 86% of the ballots. Bagwell was named on 86.2%. Rodriguez was named on 76%. Non-inductees with significant vote totals include Trevor Hoffman at 74% and Vladimir Guerrero at  71.7%. The full results can be seen here.

Others not making the cut but still alive for next year, with vote totals in parenthesis: Edgar Martinez (58.6); Roger Clemens (54.1); Barry Bonds (53.8); Mike Mussina (51.8); Curt Schilling (45.0); Manny Ramirez (23.8); Larry Walker (21.9); Fred McGriff (21.7); Jeff Kent (16.7); Gary Sheffield (13.3%); Billy Wagner (10.2); and Sammy Sosa (8.6). Making his final appearance on the ballot was Lee Smith, who received 34.2% of the vote in his last year of eligibility. He will now be the business of the Veterans Committee.

Players who fell off the ballot due to not having the requisite 5% to stay on: Jorge Posada; Magglio Ordoñez; Edgar Renteria; Jason Varitek; Tim Wakefield; Casey Blake; Pat Burrell; Orlando Cabrera; Mike Cameron; J.D. Drew; Carlos Guillen; Derrek Lee; Melvin Mora; Arthur Rhodes; Freddy Sanchez; and Matt Stairs

We’ll have continued updates on today’s Hall of Fame vote throughout the evening and in the coming days. In the meantime, congratulations to this year’s inductees, Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez!