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May 31, 2013

In A Pickle

The Bunts That Lead to Big Things

by Jason Wojciechowski


When nerds (your humble narrator included!) argue about bunting, they often rely on a metaphor that's barely a metaphor but is really a way of comparing baseball to other sports. In basketball and football and hockey and rugby and lacrosse and sometimes ultimate frisbee, there is a clock, an explicit timekeeping device used to mark the end of the match (or segment of the match) and how near it draws. If the score on the pitch is 13 to 2 and the hard time cap of 40 minutes is just 90 seconds away, well, it's physically impossible to score that many points in that little time, even for Reggie Miller. Baseball, by contrast, has no clock, only outs. If you have fewer runs than the other team once you use up your 27 outs, you lose. Outs are thus analogized to time, with the idea being that intentionally taking precious units off the clock is not a winning gambit.

The metaphor alludes to the infinitude of baseball, the idea that there's nothing in the rules preventing a game from happening to the end of time in a different way than in timed sports. In basketball, a game could have infinite overtimes, but there's something about the clock starting over every five minutes that feels distinct from the infinite baseball game—I think it's the visual image of an endlessly tied basketball game, where the clock loops back to five minutes again at the completion of each overtime, that makes it feel finite, just a circle that we can hold in our hands and our minds, not a line (score) extending out past our contemplation the way a baseball game does.

Sacrifice bunts are frequently attributed by nerds to managers feeling insecure about letting well enough alone. If they're going to lose, they're going to lose while doing something, dammit. Beyond this, though, maybe there's something deep in a manager's mind that prevents him from accepting the concept of the infinite baseball game, the idea of a team never running out of its outs, that makes him seize the moment and prove his dominion over the Never/Always by forcing an out to happen. It's not so much base CYA to ensure the continuation of a paycheck as a declaration to the universe of the manager's own existence and importance. In the face of dark, difficult questions about the nature of life and the concept of free will, surely a man's occasional lashing out in this way can be forgiven. (This line of reasoning might mean that Joe Maddon is the truest freethinker of them all not because of his belief in sabermetric orthodoxy but because he can accept the possibility of the unfathomable. Then again, even Maddon calls for bunts sometimes. We're all human. I think.)

I also have a theory about why bunts upset the rational baseball fan so much: when you equate outs to time a manager giving away outs is the same as giving away time, and time is the only resource we truly have. Baseball may be structurally infinite, but we are not. Bunts then represent a waste of life itself, and who can stay calm in the face of such ill-considered action?

Be careful, then. Judge not the manager who calls the bunt, for he may be grappling with issues beyond issues, and judge not the sabermetric nerd overreacting to that bunt, for he is merely feeling his own mortality.

The real problem with the outs/clock metaphor, though, is that basketball and football teams do routinely give up clock. When a football team is ahead late in the game, it avoids throwing passes because incomplete passes stop the time running. When a basketball team is in the same position, it delays shooting the ball until the 24-second shot limit has nearly run out. Each tactic is premised on the fact that the teams share a clock. In baseball, though, each squad has its own hourglass of outs, thus giving it a structure more akin to chess than football.

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Related Content:  The Who,  Bunt,  Single,  J.A. Happ,  Bunts,  The Call-up

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Baseball ProGUESTus: T... (05/31)
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