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.

Video: Minor leaguer bounces a home run off of an outfielder’s head

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Jose Canseco hit 462 homers, was the 1986 Rookie of the Year, the 1988 MVP and played for 17 years in the big leagues, winning two World Series rings and making the playoffs five times. Yet he’s not remembered for any of that. At least not very often.

No, he’s remembered for his ignominy. For his role in participating in and, subsequently, exposing baseball’s PED-fueled world of the 1990s. For his continued insistence that he was blackballed by Major League Baseball and his continued attempts to play via the independent league route. For his crazy post-playing career antics in which he spent a few years tweeting about aliens, conspiracy theories and non-sequiturs of every stripe.

Mostly, though, people remember Canseco for one random play: the time he helped the Indians’ Carlos Martinez to a home run when a fly ball bounced off of Canseco’s head and over the wall back in 1993:

 

Well, Canseco now has a friend in infamy. That friend: Zach Borenstein of the Reno Aces, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Triple-A affiliate. Yesterday Borenstein pulled a Canseco on what should’ve been an Alex Verdugo F-9:

Borenstein’s glove may have gotten a piece of that — the announcer seemed to think so anyway — and I have a hard time figuring that his head would give it that much bounce. I mean, look how far he was from the wall! He wasn’t even to the warning track. That’s a serious assist.

Still: gonna rule this a Canseco anyway. It’s too good not to.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cubs 7, White Sox 2: Chicago wins! Willson Contreras hit a three-run homer and drove in four in all. The talk of the game, though, was John Lackey who plunked four White Sox batters. Three of them in the fifth inning. It put me in mind of Dock Ellis’ famous “do-the-do” game, except Lackey is about as far from Dock Ellis-level cool as one can possibly get. Sox pitcher Carlos Rodon struck out 11 batters but lasted only four innings. Should’ve given up some more ground balls. It’s more democratic. The Cubs have won nine of 11.

Yankees 4, Reds 2: Todd Frazier hit into a triple play in his first at bat as a Yankee in Yankee Stadium. A run scored on the play — out number three came on a time-buying rundown — and the Yankees still won, so I suppose he doesn’t mind much. Jordan Montgomery allowed one run while pitching into the seventh. Didi Gregorius hit a sac fly and homered. Here’s the triple play:

Brewers 8, Nationals 0: Zach Davies pitched shutout ball into the eighth and Oliver Drake took it the rest of the way. Travis Shaw, Eric Thames and Manny Pina all homered. Shaw’s was a three-run blast. “Oliver Drake” sounds like a fake name a guy gives to the police after the party gets raided. He’s a little drunk and has to think fast, scans the room, sees his DC comic book collection and just blurts it out.

Astros 5, Phillies 0: Houston can bash your brains in or they can shut you out. Well, they can shut Philly out at least. Old friend Charlie Morton did the honors here with seven shutout frames. Speaking of Morton and the Phillies, remember when he was supposed to have turned into a Roy Halladay clone? For that matter, remember Roy Halladay? That was some Ric Flair-Buddy Landel falloff there, brother. In other news, Jose Altuve only went 1-for-4, so I assume he had a compound fracture or something.

Blue Jays 4, Athletics 1: Fun with earned runs. A’s starter Sonny Gray gave up four runs in the second — all the runs the Jays would score in the game — but they were all unearned. Tough luck? Well, they were unearned because Gray himself made the throwing error that caused them to be unearned. Oh, and he also uncorked a wild pitch that put a runner in scoring position. He gave up four hits in the inning — two doubles — but all the runs were “unearned.” Stats are dumb.

Indians 11, Angels 7: You don’t see many walkoff grand slams, but Edwin Encarnacion hit one here in the bottom of the 11th. All three of the baserunners reached via a Bud Norris-issued walk, one intentional, two accidental. That was the second grand slam allowed by Angels pitchers in the game, by the way, as Bradley Zimmer hit one in the second. The Indians had a 7-0 lead after two and blew it before Encarnacion’s heroics. In other news, the AP gamer reads like Coppola’s discarded first draft of “Apocalypse Now”:

CLEVELAND — Bradley Zimmer didn’t care one bit that his mouth was filled with talcum powder.

To the rookie, it tasted like victory.

Royals 3, Tigers 1Whit Merrifield homered on the game’s first pitch and Danny Duffy was solid into the seventh. That’s seven straight for Kansas City. Meanwhile, Ned Yost just rendered every studio analyst and color commentator’s job obsolete with what is, really, the only commentary you need:

The Kansas City Royals are keeping the pressure on in the AL Central, and manager Ned Yost has no big secrets to offer about their impressive winning streak. “There’s no key to staying in it. You just keep playing good,” Yost said. “If there was a key to staying in it, then we would stay in it forever. You just play good. That’s all you do.”

Rays 5, Orioles 4: Baltimore closed the gap late and threatened in the ninth but the Rays held on to break their five-game losing streak. Tim Beckham hit a three-run homer. Rookie starter Jake Faria pitched into the eighth inning and pitched well before running out of gas and stalling out.

Rangers 10, Marlins 4Joey Gallo hit two homers and Mike Napoli and Rougned Odor each had one as well. Christian Yelich had a three-run homer and drove in all four of Miami’s runs in a losing cause. Adrian Beltre went 0-for-3 and the Rangers have a day off on Thursday, so, barring a 16-inning game in which Beltre goes 7-for-7 today, the march to 3,000 will go at least into this weekend. That’s unreasonable, of course. The Rangers could never play a 16-inning game with their bullpen. If they did. Beltre’s 7-for-7 and 3,000th hit would be the sidebar story.

Cardinals 3, Rockies 2: The Cardinals called up top prospect Harrison Bader yesterday. He made a good first impression, doubling to lead off the ninth inning and then scoring the walkoff run on Jedd Gyorko‘s sacrifice fly. He had to slide and everything:

Braves 8, Diamondbacks 3: Kurt Suzuki homered twice and Matt Kemp homered and tripled. Braves starter Mike Foltynewicz allowed two runs over six, striking out nine. He hasn’t lost any of his last nine starts, going 6-0 in that time.

Mariners 6, Red Sox 5: The Red Sox took a one-run lead in the 13th inning with a Sandy Leon RBI single, but Seattle came back in the bottom half via a walk-fielder’s choice-single-wild pitch-walk-infield single combination, proving that you don’t have to bash anyone’s brains in to win this crazy game. Jean Segura hit the walkoff single. Doug Fister was the Sox pitcher responsible for those thousand cuts.

Dodgers 6, Twins 2: Chris Taylor hit two run-scoring doubles and continued his torrid post-All-Star Game hitting. Dude’s 23-for44 in those 11 games and is at .321/.388/.545 on the year. Dude can play five or six positions too. The Dodgers win their 70th game.

Mets 6, Padres 5: Yoenis Cespedes homered, doubled and tripled, driving in three. He scored on that triple too, thanks to a Wil Myers throwing error. Cespedes even threw a bullpen session before the game, so even if the Mets can’t contend in the last two months of the season, maybe they can be fun and let Yo pitch:

Giants 11, Pirates 3: Madison Bumgarner finally earned his first win of the year, allowing one run over five innings. The San Francisco bats were winners too, as Bumgarner singled and scored, Buster Posey had three hits and an RBI, Joe Panik added a bases-loaded triple and the now-departed Eduardo Nunez drove in two before he started hugging his mates.