May 22, 2017
The Muscle Memory of Bunting
We don’t really do this kind of thing very much anymore. Saber-slanted baseball writing used to consist largely of criticizing poor strategic choices made by teams, either within games or over the course of a season. We won that war, though. Teams are so much smarter these days that kvetching about a bad sacrifice bunt or intentional walk here or there feels a bit like hosting a Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure.
Here’s the thing: it is good to be reminded, now and then, that rabies is still out there. If you pretend the disease has been permanently eliminated, or that it doesn’t pose a real public danger, you end up with anti-vaxxer movements among people who call themselves “dog parents." With that in mind, I want to talk about two bunts laid down last Tuesday night, why they were misguided, and why it matters.
Let’s start in Minnesota, where the Twins hosted the Rockies. Kyle Freeland was pitching for Colorado, and found himself in early trouble. It was a hot, humid night, and rain had threatened the game for most of the day. The crowd was of a good size, but not in full voice. Each pitcher escaped a jam in the first inning after putting the first two opposing batters on. Everything about the game felt a bit off, like a jog that begins with a stumble and leaves your stride feeling wrong for a mile.
The Rockies plated two runs in the top of the second inning, a rally catalyzed (I guess) by a sacrifice bunt from shortstop Pat Valaika with two on and no outs. Valaika is a right-handed batter, and was facing the right-handed Phil Hughes. The bunt he laid down brought lefty-hitting Tony Wolters to the plate, with lefty-hitting Charlie Blackmon behind him. Wolters drove in a run with a groundout. Blackmon drove one in by blooping a single down the right field line.
Against the rookie Freeland, though, the Twins got right back into the game. Their half of the second inning began with a walk (to Jorge Polanco, batting right-handed against the southpaw) and an RBI double, a ball Jason Castro guided over third base and down the left field line. That brought up Byron Buxton, with a runner on second and no outs. Buxton bunted.
I’m not here to drag you to the run expectancy matrix. If you’re this deep in this article on this site, you know that the bunt lessened the actuarial run expectancy for the Twins in that inning. I want to talk about all the ancillary things that were wrong with the decision. Firstly, it was Buxton at the plate. He’s had a nice few weeks, rebounding from a horrific few weeks. He’s starting to look like a good bet to keep himself in the lineup (if only just). He remains young, inexperienced, and unproven, however, and he has a lot of growth left at the plate. Taking the bat out of his hands—and that’s what this was; the bunt he put down gave him no hope of beating out a hit with his elite speed—just doesn’t make developmental sense.