baseball history, bunting, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

Butcher Boys, Bunts, and Bingles: Sorting Through Antiques in the Attic

I’ve almost completed a lightning-quick video series on bunting.  (The one subject I have yet to cover is drag- and push-bunting, which may be two subjects and two videos: not sure yet.)  Perhaps I feel a bit guilty about rushing through the project so quickly.  I certainly didn’t mean to imply any contempt for it.  I think the bunting game can become a very real and effective dimension of play, I think it’s exciting when executed well, and I think current play at all levels miserably neglects it.

But since I have nothing more than a Personal Pitcher that spits out golf-sized Wiffle balls to assist me in my experiments, I feel that there’s only so much I can learn and pass along.  Unlike routine hitting, which can be adequately simulated whenever you have an object in lateral motion to swing at, the bunt can be refined into so many distinct kinds of non- or semi-swing that a real pitcher throwing real baseballs on a regulation-sized field would be required to reach confident conclusions.  My series, then, is just intended to draw attention to this important subject and to offer aspiring “stick artists” a few ideas.  I believe the videos work if viewed in that context.

The one I completed yesterday and posted just today—“The Baltimore Chop, a.k.a. “Butcher Boy”—put me into such uncomfortable contortions that I actually ended up on camera advising against its use.  We know that Deadball hitters did precisely this sort of thing, beating the pitch so directly into the dirt around home plate that it leapt high in the air and allowed the crafty batsman time to leg out a bingle.  (I don’t know why they called them “bingles”… but that’s not a typo.)  It’s well worth retrieving some of the history of our game, but perhaps not all of what we dig up is still usable.

One question that took me by surprise in filming the series was this: what exactly is a bunt?  The official rule book offers the following terse definition:

Rule 2.00
A BUNT is a batted ball not swung at, but intentionally met with the bat and tapped slowly within the infield.

Okay.  Well, it’s obvious that if you attempt to drag or push a bunt with two strikes and it rolls foul, you’re out on strike three.  The ball was “not swung at”.  But what about what I called in my third video the Fake-and-Throw-Down?  This is something very like a slap bunt (I suppose you could say it’s a species of slap bunt)—and the slap is a swing; so if that one goes foul, you’re still alive.  But what, then, about the maneuver which I gave no name in the fourth video, but which might be called a Trail-the-Barrel?  This differs from a push bunt in that both hands slide to the extreme end of the bat, with the bottom one indeed clutching the knob… yet a very weak swing is also going on.  You’re not so much pushing the pitch toward third (from a lefty’s perspective) as you are raking it anemically toward short.  As long as you get the ball past pitcher and third baseman, you’re likely to reach first safely.  Ty Cobb did this sort of thing a lot.  So did Ichiro.

That’s not a bunt, is it?  The swing is faint… but the barrel does cross the plate and move toward the pitcher, even though you want your body to be exiting the box before it finishes its sweep.  So a foul ball with two strikes would be… just a foul ball.

As far as I can tell, yesteryear’s hitters had so many tricks like these in their bag that they probably strained the boundaries of many official definitions.  More than anything about them, I admire that willingness to experiment with new approaches—to take the defense wholly by surprise.  In an era when computer printouts are telling defenders exactly where to stand and where one hard-hit ball after another goes right to a glove, you’d think that our cleverest performers might be willing to recover some of these neglected tactics.

bunting, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, umpires, Uncategorized

More on the Bunt: Practice Can Be Painful!

Thanks to a pair of sore heels that Father Time keeps stepping on, I find that I can’t rehearse certain experimental procedures as much as I would like before cutting a video.  A measure of proficiency is always desirable… but I reach the point of diminishing returns when my rising skill and my stiffening feet pass each other going in opposite directions.

This proved especially true over the weekend as I tried to master a very difficult type of bunt—a fake bunt, really, that involves dropping down as if to sacrifice and then launching toward first base while lowering the barrel into the pitch so as to loop it (hopefully) over a charging third baseman.  When I finally produced a demonstration video that I thought satisfactory, I had already worked through seven or eight takes.  In the process, I discovered that I was forcing the barrel into the pitch too hard—that I really shouldn’t be trying to drive a three-quarters swing through it, as with the conventional slap-bunt.  (Not that slap-bunts are part of any team’s conventions any longer.)  Somewhere in all these do-overs, I also realized that the beginning of a break toward first base would help me trail the barrel and hence direct the pitch more toward third.  Practice makes perfect… but perfection was in no danger of being captured by my practices over the past few days.

As I say in the video that I finally allowed to pass muster, I’m not trying to impress anyone with my skill: I’m only trying to give you things to think about.  I’ve already reached the conclusion that really proficient bunting (including bunt-fakes) would require far more rehearsal than standard swing-away hitting.  I guess it’s no wonder, then, that professionals have grown so very weak in bunting skills.  So much of the contemporary game depends upon power, and so much of the “small” game would demand hundreds and hundreds of reps, that the numbers just don’t balance out.  Honestly, I get it.  I still believe that small ball wins close games, and I know as a fan that games played with such a high degree of skill in the fine arts are the most exciting to watch… but today, with such narrow windows of time and such whopping dollar amounts involved, the Big Club wants its products to come out of the package already nine-tenths assembled.

That’s all the more reason, though, why you need to assemble yourself if you’re not built like a superhuman machine.  Your coaches probably aren’t going to teach you many of those “fine arts”, even in high school—and you certainly won’t learn them during the few practices that your travel or summer-ball team schedules.  Take some of the ideas that you can find on this and other sites, and get to work on your own.

To wrap up this brief update: one of the things that disturbs me about the Fake-and-Throw-Down (as I call it) is that, even though it’s a bid for a hit built upon a bluffed sacrifice, the ump will probably consider a fouled attempt Strike Three.  You can argue till you’re blue in the face with Blue: he’s most likely to notice that you didn’t take a full swing, and to base his decision on that observation.

The next type of bunt I plan to explore has the same liability: the attempt to ground the pitch weakly toward shortstop so that the pitcher can’t reach it and 6 arrives too late to make a play.  I suspect Cobb and Collins did this sort of thing all the time, and did it to almost to perfection.  Their strikeouts were minimal, and the fouled bunt with two strikes was already being logged as a K in 1909.  If the top hand doesn’t slide up the handle on this one (as I suspect it doesn’t—that’s going to be my initial assumption), will the Supreme Arbiter still think that it looks like a bunt attempt when he sees a stationary barrel run up on the ball rather than a swing?

That’s a consideration worth bearing in mind.  Maybe most of these techniques should be tried early in the count unless you’re really confident in your ability.

baseball history, bunting, Deadball Era, hand use in hitting, mental approach, Uncategorized

The Fine (and Lost?) Art of Bunting

As I was browsing through the pages of our latest book publication, Metal Ropes, I happened upon the very brief section about bunting.  And then it struck me: why has SmallBallSuccess never made a bunting video?  Anybody would naturally suppose that the “stickers” of yesteryear would be masters of putting that “dead ball” down.  They were considered the ultimate “place hitters” (i.e., artists capable of placing the ball in whatever part of the field they desired).  I should really look into this….

Yet when you pause to weigh the issue, Deadball bunting isn’t really very easy to research.  Besides the usual problems of having virtually no video and no live shots taken at lightning shutter-speed (which didn’t exist), we have to confront the fact that yesteryear’s batsmen didn’t really use the sacrifice as we do.  There wasn’t even a category for “sac bunt” or “sac fly”.  The assumption in both of those cases was always that the batter was attempting to reach base and “productively failed”, creating an out that happily managed to move the runner up.  It’s hardly a twisted way of thinking: ours today may well be more so.  We don’t have a “sacrifice grounder”, do we?  Yet Roger Maris once told Mike Shannon that he could collect fifteen or twenty RBI’s a season by deliberately rolling over on a pitch and grounding to the right side with a runner on third.  A lot of sabermetricians among us don’t even consider the RBI a legitimate achievement—pretty much the same guys who consider all of Roger’s RBI’s to have been accidents and the man himself to have represented mediocrity that caught fire for one season.  (We’ll never know what Maris could have done if the Yankee front office hadn’t suckered him into playing with a broken hamate bone in 1966 that never healed properly thereafter.)

Anyway, my original point (I can never resist defending Roger Maris) was that there’s no clear reason why you should ever give yourself up completely in dropping a bunt: I feel that the oldtimers had that right.  Even in Major League games, I see guys square up literally five seconds—or more—before the pitch is ever delivered, and nobody in the stadium has any illusions about their drawing the bat back at the last instant.  Then, if they somehow manage to dribble an effective sacrifice, they lope down the line, veering already toward the dugout: never a thought in their satisfied head about putting additional pressure on the defense.  No, I don’t know exactly how Willie Keeler, Eddie Collins, or Elmer Flick would have done it… but I know they wouldn’t have done it that way!

I’m actually going to have to devote quite a bit of experimentation to some of the subject’s subtler aspects.  I have a few ideas, based upon what I’ve read: that Ty Cobb, for instance, was not averse to faking a bunt and then slapping the ball rather more vigorously—but still not full force—through some vacated quadrant of the infield.  This is very fertile territory for a new video series, and I think many older baseball enthusiasts would like to see a return to such play at all levels.  It’s no secret that scrappy players who make contact and bat .343 at Double A are less interesting to the Bigs than lumbering Goliaths who get a jack every third game and bat .241… but that may be changing, even among Major League brain trusts.  Just look at the success of the Tampa Bay Rays this year!

I’ve already posted (rushed? I hope not) two introductory videos to YouTube.  The first is a mere review of the issues, and particularly a contrast of the way bunting is practiced today versus a more Old School approach.  The second is my best stab at instruction in sacrifice bunting (yes, the kind that Deadball hitters didn’t admit existed).  I have no particular historical record to draw upon, as I’ve said—and I certainly have no personal résumé of achievement on the diamond to establish my authority.  The most interesting and promising suggestion I float, I would say, is that players who are struggling at the plate and ready to try anything should consider batting left-handed.  At the very least, if you’re equally bad mechanically from the left and right sides, you’ll be closer to first base from the former and thus bound to beat out a few more scratch hits.  Maury Wills was going nowhere in the Minors before he tried switch-hitting: a few years later, he broke Ty Cobb’s stolen base record.  I’m not even recommending a switcher approach.  If you’re fast, just bat left exclusively.  Learn to put the ball in play on the left side, where throws to first are longer, and exploit that good break out of the box.  This was essentially Ichiro’s game in his best years.

We’ll try to promote various ways of getting the pitch into play on that side in forthcoming videos: the straight bunt isn’t the only tactic, by any means.  Some alternatives range between a bunt and a full swing—and these were precisely what Collins, Cobb, et al. had honed to perfection, in my opinion.  At any rate, I’m pretty sure that you’ll break into any line-up hitting .400, even if 90 percent of your safeties are singles—and even if 50 percent of those are infield hits!