This week in Braves bunting, a look at the trials and errors of major leaguers performing a minor task, is a mixed report.
Let’s hear it for Jordan Schafer, who Monday, with more than a month of the season gone, became the first Braves position player to execute a successful sacrifice bunt. They did not, however, pause the game to award him the ball.
The next night, however, manager Fredi Gonzalez dialed up a squeeze bunt for catcher Gerald Laird, who whiffed on the attempt, costing the Braves a rare runner at third. Such a lovely play when it works. Such a multicar pile-up on the Downtown Connector when it doesn’t.
The humble bunt, the act of merely kissing a pitched ball with a steadied bat, has caused the Braves a disproportionate amount of grief. Given the stack of issues facing their offense, complaining about not being able to put a ball 30 or so feet into play in fair territory seems trivial. But the more they struggle to score, the more their failure at the simplest of acts is magnified.
Most often employed by National League pitchers looking to sacrifice themselves for the greater good of moving along a base runner, the bunt is not a particularly sexy tool. It’s sort of the flat-head screwdriver in the belt. But when you need it, nothing else will do. And the Braves spent the first month of the season fumbling about trying to find it. Entering the weekend series with the Cubs, they were last in the league in sacrifice bunts (with a mere seven).
The sacrifice bunt stirs an array of emotions in baseball folk. The whole idea of giving up a precious out in order to advance a runner makes the Sabermetrics people go all ctrl-alt-delete.
The late great Earl Weaver proclaimed, “There is a place for the sacrifice bunt, and it’s deep in your closet.”
The current, pretty adequate Joe Maddon of the Tampa Bay Rays opined just a year ago that, “I think the bunt is an overrated play.” A solid American League stance.
“It can be a huge play,” Braves third-base coach Doug Dascenzo said, taking the more traditional, National League view. He, along with bench coach Carlos Tosca, instruct hitters on the art of the bunt.
Bunting is more difficult than it appears, say those in the arena. Because, frankly, it appears to be about the most basic thing you can ask of a highly paid professional.
Braves starter Alex Wood employs a golf analogy. Put a ball on a tee, and odds are you still won’t hit it straight, he said. Now have it coming at you at 90-plus mph with crazy movement and try to put it into play between the lines.
Wood is the perfect case study for the challenges of getting down a bunt as well as the cost of failure. Bedeviled by poor run support, he could have helped himself on a couple of occasions already this season by moving a runner. He pitched a complete-game 1-0 loss to Philadelphia and blamed himself for not getting down an eighth-inning bunt with no outs and a man on second.
Inevitably, he reasons, when a pitcher botches a bunt, the next hitter does something that would have created a run. “It’s Karma and the baseball gods — that’s how it always seems to work,” he said.
And Wood, just 23, with less than a year in the majors, is the generation of player that Gonzalez points to when explaining much of the Braves’ bunt breakdowns. Between high school and the bigs, Wood said he had maybe a dozen at-bats. He never was asked to handle a bat until it was time to face the best arms in the world.
During his managerial internship with the Marlins, Gonzalez found himself dealing with an impatient owner who couldn’t understand why his players — even younger than the Braves’ callow staff in those years — had trouble bunting. His words still apply. “Usually we had to sit down and explain to him that young pitchers, when they come up to the major leagues, have not had the at-bats because they don’t get them in the minors,” Gonzalez said. “I had to break this down — the veteran guys have 400 at-bats in the major leagues. It’s a big difference.”
Miami, by the way, is now three times more proficient at the sacrifice bunt (21 entering the weekend) than the Braves.
“Give me Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen or Mike Minor up there, and I’ll take my chances on getting the bunt down,” Tosca said. One’s gone, one’s out for the year, the other just returned to the rotation. All leaving the Braves inexperienced on the mound — and in the batter’s box.
Why can’t the Braves bunt? Much of it is pinned on the unfamiliarity of starters like Wood and David Hale. Ervin Santana had 40 plate appearances during a decade in the American League before the Braves acquired him.
And many of these position players just aren’t asked to do it that often (Laird, for instance, has 35 career sacrifice bunts in 2,600 plate appearances). Don Sutton, the Hall of Fame pitcher from 1966-88 who broadcasts the Braves, will tell you that in general there is just not the emphasis on bunting that there used to be.
Most often when a player doesn’t get down the bunt, some small technical issue was involved. Like not getting the body squared, not getting the bat out in front of the plate, or holding it at the wrong angle, Dascenzo said.
There also is a comfort level required to crouch toward the plate, line up the bunt and thus bring yourself more face-to-face with a darting fastball than with a normal swing. A fear factor, perhaps, for the less experienced hitter? “Sure,” Gonzalez said.
It is impossible to simulate all this at less than game speed. This spring, Gonzalez even considered having his guys practice bunting off pitchers throwing live batting practice. “I really didn’t want to answer the question how come Mike Minor blew out a finger hitting against Craig Kimbrel in spring training,” the manager determined.
So they continue to practice bunting off a machine and off the gentle lobs of elder coaches. Every day, ever more intensely the past few weeks, Wood said.
It may not always look like it, but honestly, these pros have been sweating over the most remedial batting maneuver, like aerospace engineers reciting their multiplication tables.
And with repetition there is an institutional certainty that they will improve. “Without question,” Tosca said, “just with the experience of more at-bats alone.”
Then, when the base runner is smartly moved into scoring position, there comes the much larger issue of actually bringing him home. That’s the real advanced stuff. Bunting 101 is just the core class.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com