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!

baseball history, footwork in the box, hand use in hitting, Uncategorized

How Old-School Hitting Would Invigorate Today’s Game: Bunting

Here’s another excerpt–just written–from my forthcoming book, Metal Ropes:

bunting

For my money, batting left-handed while being a natural right-hander presents the ideal situation for bunting. History appears to bear me out, as well. Deadball times do not offer us precise records of bunt hits, as distinguished from sacrifices; but in more recent days, Nellie Fox, Don Blasingame, and Pete Rose all achieved spectacular results by bunting from the first-base side box with their throwing hand on the bottom of the bat. That bottom hand holds the key: it needs to be clever enough to stabilize and steer the bat, so that the barrel quickly and minutely adjusts to the pitch’s action. You can actually dip the head and, as long as the ball’s top half is contacted, lay down a very nice bunt down the third-base line. You can also drag the pitch with you toward first with the bottom hand tucking itself close to the bottom and trailing the stick behind it. Of course, you can do nothing analogous to this from the right-hand batter’s box.

In both the “push” and the “drag” bunts, furthermore, the top hand should be no firmer near the beginning flare of the barrel than is needed to keep your tool relatively parallel. The top hand is a mere prop, and picture-hanger. I think most bunts that go wrong have suffered from an overly assertive top hand. If that hand doesn’t show enough “give” upon contact, the ball comes off too hard. If the hand goes after the ball aggressively rather than letting its mate on the bottom do such steering, the ball is poked at and tends to be popped up. Having your weaker hand riding on top reduces the chances of these unfortunate outcomes. If the “control” hand is your naturally stronger one and the “prop” hand your naturally weaker one, then bunting can come as easily as swimming to a fish. If your hands have to reverse their natural inclination, then… then we’d better hope that the coach doesn’t give you that sign very often.

Yes, yes… practice makes perfect. I’m not trying to disparage right-handed hitters here, but to encourage smaller righties to experiment with left-handed hitting. In any case, none of what I’ve written so far has to do directly with Deadball techniques—so let me spend the rest of this space pointing out how the styles of yesteryear particularly play into the bunting attack.

Obviously, if your feet are active in your load, bending the knees into a bunting posture and then launching yourself toward first base should be easier. I see a lot of hitters at the highest levels (on rare occasions when I witness a bunt attempt on TV) who bend at the waist more than in the knees, and who don’t even pivot to face the pitch. Your back should be relatively straight when you bunt, presenting your eyes with a clear and stable view of the delivery. It’s the knees that take your hands down. A batsman who is using his lower body to surge or shuffle or glide into the pitch is already on the balls of his feet and flexing his calves and thigh muscles. The emphasis of his swinging attack is also, ever and always, straight into the pitch rather than back-and-up or back-and-out with a hope that barrel and pitch will explosively intersect. There’s no essential change of mindset involved when the former—the Old School artist—shifts to bunting. You need to fix your barrel in the pitch’s path when you bunt and let the ball chase you along its route rather than aggressively rushing to meet it up the road—and, yes, I suppose that requires a mild change of mindset. But for the Deadball hitter, everything that happens still takes place along the same familiar path. He is always thinking “straight through”, not “collision at the intersection”.

One of the reasons that we lack reliable statistics of how often the oldtimers bunted for hits is probably the difficulty an observer would have encountered in distinguishing some of their swings from bunts. I’ve seen written claims that Ty Cobb did not often drop a bunt, but I’ve seen further claims (sometimes in the same sources) that he liked to poke a grounder to the left side past the pitcher and beat the throw to first base. Would the stroke Cobb executed in the latter instances be his full one? Doesn’t sound like it. I doubt that he would have squared around during the pitcher’s delivery, or even have slid his top hand farther up to the barrel area. I picture him as simply leading the bat with the bottom hand as he charged out of the box and letting a loose top hand drive just enough send the ball past the mound. And, again… I’d bet that a great many of Ty’s contemporaries (such as Eddie Collins and the older scrappers, Fred Clarke and Willie Keeler) did the same thing.

Would an Ichiro-like raking swing as the hitter sprints from the box be so ineffectual today, when an entire half of the infield is often left virtually unpoliced? Such a tactic wouldn’t count formally as a bunt attempt and thus wouldn’t send the hitter back to the bench if his bid went foul. It would be the simplest thing in the world to execute out of a Fall Step where the batsman sets up on top of the plate and then strides wide open. For that matter, it would be the perfect ingredient for concocting a successful hit-and-run play; for the left-side hitter wouldn’t have to pull the ball (which is hard to do in any circumstances, since you have to be early), and he would also get a running start out of the box. With the runner moving from first on the pitch, the shortstop or third-baseman might well be befuddled about where to make his throw on the slow roller just long enough that both runners would reach safely; and if the throw to first were made while the infield was shifted to the pull side, the lead runner could easily continue on to third. I could cite Al Smith’s fond reminiscence about how often they worked that stunt in the Negro Leagues.

What I’m trying to say is just that several varieties of bunt-like contact would flow naturally from the endeavor if the bunt itself were ever to return… but a much more active lower body will have to be enlisted into the swing, I think, before any of that happens. What we have now is a line-up of home-run-hitting prima donnas who draw fans, perhaps, but don’t win ballgames regularly. The eternal baseball question: do more fans show up to see the Babe take mighty cuts on a second-division team, or to see a squad of resourceful nobodies win a hundred games?