Bunting has become baseball's forgotten weapon
Starling Marte and Billy Hamilton share a problem.
With so few prototypical leadoff hitters, Marte and Hamilton have been forced to their respective lineup's No. 1 spot despite deficiencies in their profiles. Marte has a considerable swing-and-miss in his game and lacks patience. Scouts question whether Hamilton can hit enough to use his world-class speed on the bases.
They cannot steal first base. But what if they could?
Bunting has become a lost art. While analysts have shown statistically that sacrifice bunts often are self-defeating and in steep decline, bunt singles also are rarities, despite being an effective strategy.
The bunt hit produces the highest average on balls in play. The most effective bunters in history post averages at .500 or better on bunt attempts. Since 2002, Derek Jeter has an .840 batting average on bunt attempts for hits, best in baseball, according to Baseball Info Solutions. Ichiro Suzuki is second with a .728 average on such attempts, and former Pirate Kenny Lofton ranks third with a .694 average.
Despite those success rates, the bunt hit is a sparsely used tool. In 2013, Texas outfielder Leonys Martin led baseball with 11 bunt hits. No major leaguer has produced at least 20 bunt hits in a season since Carlos Gomez in 2008.
With power down and shifts proliferating, perhaps now is an ideal time for a comeback. And no players would benefit more from mastering the craft than speedy players like Marte and Hamilton. The Pirates and Reds have urged their young leadoff hitters to increase their volume of bunts. While sound in theory, executing is difficult.
“Bunting is the easiest, hardest thing there is to do in the game,” Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson said. “It's a crazy analogy, but it's true.”
The ceiling seemed limitless for Hamilton after the 2012 season.
He set a professional baseball record of 155 steals across two levels of the minors. He posted an on-base mark above .400.
The ceiling crashed last summer when Hamilton struggled at Triple-A. His on-base mark declined by 100 points. Experienced pitchers tested him with inner-half-of-the-plate velocity. Scouts questioned whether he would hit.
The Reds needed his speed. They lost their former leadoff hitter and center fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, to free agency last offseason. Seeking a way to boost Hamilton's on-base percentage, the Reds gave him an offseason assignment: He was to go to the club's spring training complex in Arizona and work with Double-A manager and former major league speedster and master bunter Delino DeShields.
Before they began, there was a counterintuitive lesson: DeShields told Hamilton to slow down.
“Usually I would try to run before I'd bunt,” Hamilton said. “Listening to Delino DeShields every day … the fact of bunting is you have to get it down before you run. The quality of your bunt is most important.”
Hamilton showed the weapon's potential in March against Texas ace Yu Darvish when he reached first base on a bunt hit in a fleet 3.3 seconds, according to CBSSports.com. It was an indefensible play. Hamilton's bunting remains a work in progress, however. In the series opener against the Pirates last week, Hamilton started to run before contacting a pitch and popped up for a foul out.
It sounds simple enough to master — put a stationary bat on the ball and run — only it isn't, Branson said.
“You try to do it so perfectly, or so quick, or your eyes leave,” he said.
Some players lack the skill. Otis Nixon hit .208 on bunt attempts in 1989. Fernando Vina hit .194 on bunt attempts in 2002. Pat Listach hit .263 on bunt attempts for his career.
Moreover, many pitchers are replacing straight four-seam fastballs with sinking two-seam fastballs. The cut fastball is another trendy pitch and another that moves.
“What also makes it difficult is pitchers are throwing more pitches with movement,” Branson said. “It's just like hitting. Your eyes have to stay on the ball even after the ball leaves the bat. Same thing with bunting. Your eyes have to stay there.”
Flat bat psychology, geometry
Unlike Hamilton, Marte has proven he can bunt at the major league level.
Marte attempted 17 bunt hits in 2013 and reached safely 10 times, second most in baseball, good for a .588 average. What keeps the left fielder from bunting more is an aspect that is not mechanical but rather psychological, Branson says. It further explains why the bunt is an endangered species.
“Marte has the ability to be the best bunter in the league,” Branson said. “He has great hands. Great touch. … But it goes back to the confidence aspect. Making an out, a lot of times, kind of deters him from doing it again. ... What happens is when they bunt and make an out, they think, ‘If I had swung, maybe I had got a hit.' ”
Or for a player like Marte, an extra-base hit. Players often do not want to trade the potential of power for the upside of an infield single. Still, Marte knows it's important that he improves his ability to reach first base.
“I have to be on base,” he said. “(However) I do it, that's why I like bunting.”
Marte, 25, also said infield positioning has deterred him from bunting in certain situations.
Branson does not want infielders cheating in to stop Marte. As an infielder in the early 1990s, Branson defended one of the game's premier bunters in Brett Butler. Butler had 40 bunt hits in 1992 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the most bunt hits in a season since 1959, according to Baseball Prospectus. Butler hit .511 on bunt attempts during his career.
“We had to play him five steps in the grass because he had such good touch,” Branson said. “It didn't matter where you were playing at third base, he was going to bunt no matter what.”
By bringing the infield in, the geometry of the game changes. Ground balls and line drives have a better chance of becoming hits. Taking advantage of that warped geometry could allow Marte to become a more effective leadoff hitter, which Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is seeking.
“Bunting is a lot like hitting. I think you can get in a rhythm. It can become contagious,” Hurdle said. “He's been reminded of that. We'll see how it plays out.”
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
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