The Art of Bunting


Last night, many Dodgers fans were up in arms about Don Mattingly’s decision to bunt with no outs and runners on first and second in both the 7th and 8th innings. After the game, Mattingly said he wouldn’t change either decision, even though the first turned into a bunt double play off the bat of Juan Uribe (not surprised at all…) and the second occurrence led to an intentional walk of Matt Kemp, after which Andre Ethier promptly grounded into an inning-ending double play.

On Twitter, I was engaged in some friendly banter with Scott about bunting in general and the purposes it serves in baseball today. Also on Twitter, I was engaged in some very testy exchanges with other Dodgers fans who couldn’t quite seem to keep their composure over the issue.

So, let’s stick with what Scott and I have been debating about. I’m a huge proponent of the bunt, and not just because it’s old-school. Scott prefers to only allow pitchers to bunt, because bunting gives away outs. Fair argument.

Let me tell you why Scott, with all due respect, is incorrect in that logic, and why bunts should be celebrated (despite last night’s unlucky results).

First of all, let me acknowledge that bunting almost always results in one out. That is why it’s called a “sacrifice” bunt. You give up your at-bat to move a runner into a position for your next couple hitters to drive him in. Even Dee Gordon would have trouble scoring from first on a single. Move him to second and your chances of scoring on a hit increase significantly.

That being said, there were two situations last night – the first is easy to dismiss. We don’t have to talk about Uribe’s failings as a human being, let alone a hitter. He never should have been bunting because he never should have been in the lineup. BUT, it is still my belief that every single Major Leaguer (yes, that means you cleanup hitters) should know how to lay down an effective bunt.

It might literally be the single easiest thing to do in baseball. Hold the bat in the strike zone and move it up or down. Let the ball hit it. Done.

Anyway, the major situation was in the bottom of the 8th inning, when a lead off single gave Dodger fans hope of stealing game two from the rival Giants, as the score sat at 2-1. Gordon came up and the bunt was obvious. He bunts half the time with the bases empty as it is.

He laid down a beauty, and Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong couldn’t get a handle on the ball. Boom. Runners on first and second, nobody out, heart of the order coming up. This is where it gets tricky. In MY mind (and Mattingly’s too, apparently), this is a no-brainer bunt situation. Number two hitters are paid to make contact, get on base, bunt, etc. Essentially to play small ball. Classic, typical number two guys do NOT drive in runs.

Mark Ellis, by the way, is a mid-.200′s hitter and had awful numbers with runner on base. His average was well over .300 with the bases empty, so laying one down seems just fine and dandy here. Ellis squared and laid down a perfect bunt, moving Bobby Abreu to third and Gordon to second.

At this point, all is right in Dodger world, as we have two runners in scoring position with Kemp and Andre Ethier coming up. The only thing that could prevent us from scoring is a strikeout or a double play ball. Chances of the two sluggers hitting into a double play was low, considering they are both very clutch power hitters. Chances are they get a hit or hit a fly ball. And a fly ball was all we needed.

The Giants countered the bunt with an intentional walk to Kemp, before bringing in a lefty specialist to face Ethier. Andre notoriously struggles against southpaws, but was hitting nearly .300 this season. And he’s also Andre Ethier, clutch hitter extraordinaire. Sure, he hit a ground ball that ended the inning, but with bases loaded, one out and the go-ahead run guaranteed (with Gordon’s speed) with a base hit, that was exactly the right move by Mattingly (on the bunt).

People may cry foul that Kemp didn’t get to swing, but I have three retorts to that:

1) Who is to say that Ellis gets to hit, and most likely (given his batting average and numbers with runners on base) makes an out or hits into a double play of his own. If he hits into a double play, Ethier might not even get a chance in the 9th. If he makes one out, Kemp comes up with only one runner in scoring position, instead of two and the same amount of outs.

2) That being said, let’s say Ellis makes an out (again, the most likely scenario statistically), who is to say that the Giants don’t walk Kemp anyway to load the bases? They don’t want to face the National League’s best hitter, and they know they have a side-arming lefty in the bullpen to face Ethier.

3) Kemp is the better all-around player and the better hitter, but don’t forget that Ethier actually has more RBI than Kemp right now. Both are among the MLB leaders in runs batted in. You can’t really go wrong with Matt or Andre in that pressure situation. Except that Ethier has 12 career walk-offs and a knack for coming through in late, clutch situations.

All in all, I love the move by Mattingly to bunt in the eighth. I was extremely disappointed by Ethier’s execution – he knew his job was to hit a fly ball and tie the game – and the Dodgers’ execution in general. Leaving 13 men on base is tough to come back from in a game like that.

Long live the bunt! Next time, the one single thing that ‘Dre couldn’t do will be avoided, and the Dodgers will come away with a win. I’ll be sitting here smugly, sipping a beer, fist-pumping for the win, and smiling at all the haters who reverse their calls on bunts.

It’s a numbers game, folks. Baseball is a game of strategy, and the Dodgers played it right last night and got very unlucky.

You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.

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