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May 30, 2008

Prospectus Matchups

Sacrificial Lions

by Jim Baker

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Earlier this year, I was at a University of Texas game when something jarring-at least to my mind-happened. In the fourth inning of a close game against Stanford, coach Augie Garrido had Kyle Russell-the player who led the nation in home runs in 2007-lay down a sacrifice bunt.

I was incredulous. "He's bunting?!?" I yelled with no small amount of disdain in my question.

My friend Will, the UT season ticket holder who had brought me to the game, looked at me askance. "This isn't New York, Jim. We don't 'dis' our own here," he said, trying to quiet me down.

"But I'm rooting for your team, Will! I want them to win, and this isn't how it's done!" He reminded me of their recent national championships under the stewardship of Mr. Garrido as they went on to lose by one run. Naturally, when UT lost a game later in the season 31-12, I made sure to check the box score to see if they had any sacrifices. I was relieved to find they didn't.

Cottoning to the sac bunt is hard enough, but when it's a team's biggest sluggers who are being asked to move runners over, it's especially hard to take. Famously-or infamously in these sac-hating parts-Reds manager Dusty Baker has twice asked two of his less bunting-inclined players to lay down sacrifices this year. When both Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Dunn failed to do that which they are not prone to do, they responded with game-winning home runs.

Watching the clip of Dunn trying to lay it down got me to wondering about the sacrificial history of some of the game's greatest sluggers. What follows is a list of the players with the 20 top slugging averages (in descending order) whose careers ended in 1960 or later and a discussion of their sacrifice bunting history. What we don't know, of course, is how many times they tried to move a runner over and failed. Nor do we know if they were ordered to do so or took it upon themselves to take one for the team. We also don't know if they were bunting for a hit and were generously credited with a sacrifice attempt.

Ted Williams: Of all the players listed here, the one man I cannot imagine squaring around is Williams. Instead, I picture him spitting disdainfully in the direction of any coach or manager who dared flash him the bunt sign. Williams was credited with five career sacs, with three of them coming as a 20-year old rookie in 1939. He had one more the next year, and one in 1947. He then went over 5,000 plate appearances without another. As a manager, Williams was not particularly in love with the concept of laying one down either, at least as far as his non-pitchers were concerned. In the four years he was managing in the American League, his position players had fewer sacrifices than those of famous bunt-hater Earl Weaver on three occasions: among their hitters, Weaver's Orioles had 144 sacrifices to the 111 recorded by Williams' Senators/Rangers from 1969 to 1972 (of course, the Orioles had a lot more baserunners to move over). In 1970, the Williams' Senators had only 13 sac bunts credited to their hitters, the lowest total in the league; while two other teams-Boston and Chicago-were also in the teens, most clubs had over 30, and the Brewers had 63.

Albert Pujols: On June 16, 2001, the Cardinals were leading the White Sox 6-3 when they came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning and got the first two runners on. Rookie Pujols, batting cleanup with an OPS over 1000 at that moment, moved the men over. Both scored after an intentional walk and St. Louis won 8-3. That remains the sum of his sac bunt history.

Barry Bonds: When but a scrawny rook, Bonds laid down two sacs. He added another three years later, and a fourth one in 1998.

Manny Ramirez: The best way to avoid a certain kind of work is to display no ability for the task. I once knew a guy who completely tanked it when asked to do the dishes by his wife. He said he either left so much junk on the dishes or dropped enough of them that she finally stopped asking him to try. That's what comes to mind when I notice that Ramirez made it until his third year in the bigs before registering two sac bunts, and has not had one since.

Mark McGwire: Mac managed to get through his rookie season without one, a rare feat on this list. He had one each in 1988, 1989, and 1991. Those campaigns were followed by his miserable 1991, so seeing a sac bunt on a line that includes .201/.330/.383 isn't very jarring at all. That was the last of his bunts, though.

Alex Rodriguez: He bunted his last in 1999 (giving the New York press another reason to call him selfish) after piling up 16 sacs in his Seattle youth; he had as many as six in his first full year (1996). Given his .631 slugging average in '99, would it be reasonable to expect he would have gotten four total bases in those six at bats had he swung away?

Todd Helton: He had one in his rookie year and two since then, the last one coming three years ago. It would be just about impossible to play for Clint Hurdle and not have at least one; even Matt Holliday laid one down as a rookie in 2004.

Vladimir Guerrero: Do you think Vlad even knows that there is such a thing as bunting? Sure, maybe he's caught a glimpse of it during batting practice, and it's something that happens far away when he's standing out there in right field, but to fully understand the concept of moving the hand up the bat and laying it out over the plate in the hopes of stopping a pitch with it? That I find highly unlikely. Vladi's count to date: 7,034 plate appearances, zero sacrifice bunts.

Lance Berkman: The Big Puma made it until July 2, 2003-his fifth season in The Show-before being credited with a sac. With the score tied in the bottom of the ninth and nobody out, he bunted Morgan Ensberg to second, where he died; the Astros lost to the Brewers in the 11th. No telling what might have happened if he swung away, I suppose. That was five years ago, and Berkman has not had one since. With a .758 slugging average to this point, we'll set the over/under on this year's total at -1.

Larry Walker: Like a lot of sluggers, Walker's encounters with moving mates along came in his puphood. All seven of his sacrifices took place within the first 10 percent of his career plate appearances.

Albert Belle: He had four, the last one coming in 1994, a year in which he slugged .714. That probably puts him in the running for highest slugging average for a post-war player credited with a sac bunt.

Jim Thome: What was so jarring about the recent Adam Dunn bunt attempt is that he does not have the appearance of someone who can bunt. Some of the players on this list did not look like sluggers when they were 20 or 21 years old, so you can kind of see why a veteran manager might look at them as someone who should lay one down. Dunn never had that look, and neither did Thome, who struggled for four years to find playing time with the Indians in the early '90s. His lone credited sacrifice came in 1994 and it resulted in his reaching base on an error.

Juan Gonzalez: Remember what I said about Ted Williams? That goes for Juan Gone as well. One can easily imagine him staring down any manager or coach who dared flash him the bunt sign until the perpetrator backed off of his request. Gonzo's two career sacrifices came when he was still a teenager, within the first 20 games of his career. After that, it was all macho, all the time.

Stan Musial: After a long layoff from sacrificing chores, Musial laid down a handful in the mid-'50s, when he was still in the top 10 in slugging average. He had none in the last six years of his career, however.

Frank Thomas: Can you picture Frank Thomas squaring around to bunt? There's probably a good reason for that: shortly after he comes off of the DL, he's going to pass his 10,000th career plate appearance without ever being credited with a sacrifice bunt.

Willie Mays: Of all the greatest sluggers, Mays' sacrifice history is perhaps the most curious. He had one his rookie year and then went 13 years without another. Then they started coming with infrequent frequency so that by the time he retired he had 13.

Mickey Mantle: The Mick had 14 in his career. The last one, surprisingly, came in 1968, his final year in the bigs. In the fourth inning of the second game of a July 16 doubleheader, after Roy White singled and stole second. Mantle bunted White to third so that Joe Pepitone and Andy Kosco could have a shot at moving him the last 90 feet; Pepitone popped out, after which White took affairs into his own hands and stole home.

David Ortiz: Papi's sole career sacrifice came on April 14, 2001, while he was still playing for the Twins. With runners on first and second and Minnesota up 5-3, he moved them up with a bunt. This was followed by the usually inevitable intentional walk. Doubles by Doug Mientkiewicz and A.J. Pierzynski cleared the bases, so it was not entirely in vain.

Hank Aaron: The Hammer had 21 sac bunts in his career, 18 of which came in his first three seasons. He added another in 1961 and then went 13 years before he dropped one down in 1974, after he had become the all-time home run king. How's that for irony?

Ken Griffey, Jr.: He had one as a 19-year-old in 1989, and four more two years later. If there is any pattern to slugging careers, that would usually be the end of them. Griffey has added three more, however, the last one coming five years ago.

Others of note: Looking at some of the all-time home run leaders who didn't make this list, we find these: Sammy Sosa (17, the last at age 25); Frank Robinson (17, with 13 before the age of 22, and four after age 34); Harmon Killebrew (zero in 9,831 plate appearances, but the Big Hurt has now eclipsed that); Rafael Palmeiro (15, but none in the last 12 years of his career); Reggie Jackson (13, with 12 by 1972 and one in 1984); Mike Schmidt (16, including six in 1975, a year in which he led the league in home runs, and none in his last 10 seasons); Willie McCovey (five, none until his fifth season, and none after his age-29 season); Ernie Banks (45, as he sacrificed semi-regularly throughout his career); Eddie Mathews (36, the majority came before the age of 30, but he had a handful later on as well); Eddie Murray (two, the last one at age 23); Carlos Delgado (none in 8,068 plate appearances and counting, although the way he's going, you never know…); Mike Piazza (finished with zero in 7,745 plate appearances); and Chipper Jones (three, the last one coming 10 years ago).

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