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The Zen of Sac Bunting

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As you may remember, last week I took up John Brattain's recent article calling out John Gibbons for not sacrifice bunting enough . I'm not going to lie, John is one of my favorite baseball writers, and I would follow his work even if he covered the Pirates. Among other things, I argued that the Jays, by and large, were poor bunters. Anyway, John e-mailed me the following, in response:

First, I agree about the bunting prowess of the Jays. I fault Gibbons for not teaching this skill. But there's more to the sac bunt/productive out than moving runners up/getting a guy on third w/less than 2 out.

Remember Gaylord Perry? His greatest weapon wasn't the spitball as much as opposing hitters worrying that he might throw the spitball. It kept opposing batters off balance.

The sac bunt also helps the offense in that it puts the defense on, well...the defensive. When a team routinely swings away with a man on second/1st & 2nd the opposing club can play back and await the ground ball/double play. If the sac bunt is used from time to time, when you get the 'man on second/1st & 2nd' situation it keeps the other team off balance defensively. Now they have to decide whether to play back or come in. When the pitcher deals, the defense has to move which create holes that a ball can get through should the batter swing away.

It's like football. Suppose your team's strength is running the football. If a team does nothing but run, the defense can set for that. Burn them with a couple of huge passing gains downfield and you loosen up the defense and you can the ball/control the clock much better since they don't know what to expect.

Teams know what to expect with the Jays: 'man on second/1st & 2nd' --you play back and wait. Throw in a sac bunt every so often and they cannot do that. It's more than just staying out of a double play and getting a runner on third w/less than 2 out, it's also about creating holes and getting infielders in motion so ground balls can get through rather than becoming twin-killers.

Re-wind in your mind to any number of Devil Rays/Blue Jays series. See how they create scoring opportunities by keeping the Jays defense off-balance and in motion. A team that has to entertain the possibility of a sac bunt increases the possibility of an error plus it gives the pitcher an additional concern since he has to remember his job (which base to cover/which base to throw to/making sure his follow-through leaves him in a physical position to execute) should a bunt be utilized.

The Jays "we don't give up outs to score runs" philosophy makes it much easier and simple for the opposing team to defend the Jays. They know what is, and what is not coming.

You don't have to sac bunt all the time, or even most of the time, but enough times to keep the other team off balance.

John's point is well taken. Here was my response to him (pleasantries omitted):

John -

I definitely agree that the Jays' offense is too one-dimensional. When they get runners on, teams are sitting back and awaiting the double play, just as you say. Even when they get into a 1st and 2nd with no outs situation, they're not putting enough pressure on the pitcher.

I think a big component to this is that the Jays are just plain slow. The Jays most likely to reach base (Glaus, Thomas, Stairs, perhaps Overbay) are some of the slower players in the majors. When they get runners on, pitchers can basically not worry about the runners and just focus on the guy at the plate. That's exacerbated by the fact that a slow team is that much easier to double off.

This lack of speed can make bunting tough, because it sometimes will take a better-than-average bunt to move someone like Thomas along. Another issue is Glaus and Thomas' history of lower leg injuries - the team may not want to tax their lower bodies any more than necessary. Throw in the fact that the team are not good bunters, and it just compounds the problem.

I do completely agree that the Jays need to develop a more multidimensional offense. Sac bunting would be one way to do that. My concern with the sac bunt is that it gives away outs, the most precious commodity in baseball game. While a sac bunt definitely does put pressure on the defense, they also sort of relieve pressure on the pitcher in that they surrender outs. My preference is for the straight steal, which also puts pressure on the defense as well as the pitcher, and, when done by relatively high-percentage guys like Wells (25 out of 32, or 78% over the last two season) and Rios (27/37, or 73%), is a good tactical move just for what it is in addition to the pressure it puts on a pitcher and the holes it opens up in the defense, which are not accounted for in the usual adage that one must steal successfully 72% of the time for it to be a good move.

If I were Gibbons, I would've encouraged both Wells and Rios to steal more regularly, and I would probably do the same for Johnson (although it's complicated in his case because of his back injury, and it looks like he's lost a step since returning) who stole a ton of bases in the minors but was never encouraged to do so on the Jays. I also would've had Olmedo and/or Adams up much earlier in the season and encouraged them to run.

I must confess to bias on this score because as a (mostly lousy) player, I loved to steal bases and hated being told to bunt (which happened fairly often as I hit #2 in HS and (on my club team) in college!.