Smart Baseball

Jeff Sullivan · August 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

All right, it’s been an ugly little stretch, but some neat things have happened. Felix mowed right through probably the best offense in baseball. Michael Saunders is turning it on just as Nick Franklin is turning it off, which is necessary to maintain our semblance of a positive attitude. Yesterday’s game, though nightmarish, afforded a number of different things to blame, like umpires, and relievers, and a non-manager manager gesturing with the wrong arm. Things haven’t been dull or completely and utterly bad, and Kyle Seager bunted for an RBI base hit.

That was Thursday. This is what Seager looked at, defensively, as he stood in the box with a runner on third:


That’s a heavy shift, with three defenders between first and second and the third baseman playing shortstop. Mike Blowers remarked it was the first time he could remember seeing Seager get shifted. It’s been unusual to see a Mariners hitter get shifted, because it’s usually good hitters who get shifted, and, yeah. Shifting, defensively, makes a lot of sense, depending on hitter traits and pitcher type. But this kind of shift leaves a big gaping obvious hole at third. That’s the kind of shift that can be beaten by a well-placed bunt. Wouldn’t you know it:


Seager dropped a well-placed bunt and the Mariners scored a run. Here’s the video. All people could talk about was how smart Seager is, how heads-up that play was. People complimented Seager’s situational awareness, and it felt like a real clever gamble. The only thing about this being considered smart baseball is that it’s actually really obvious baseball.

You bunt to beat the shift. If the defense is going to shift like that, you beat it by bunting. No, you’re not going to be successful all of the time, but you’re going to get a lot of hits, and you’re going to produce more than you would by swinging away. That’s all but guaranteed, at least with a little practice, and everyone who gets shifted ought to practice bunting. People don’t bunt mostly because of their egos. Hitters feel bad about altering their approaches, and they don’t want to sacrifice their power. Defenses exploit this mentality. In a word, that’s stupid. It’s all testosterone-y and stupid. Maybe bunting feels weak, or cheap, but hits are hits. Hits are good for your line and good for your team.

Yeah, if you get shifted and you constantly bunt, the defense is going to respond by un-shifting, at least to such an extreme degree. That’s when you swing away, because the thing about this game theory is that it’s apparent when you’re in the box what the infield is doing. Nothing is hidden. The third baseman can either field a bunt down the line or he can’t. Then the hitter can respond to that. When shifted, you bunt. When not shifted, you don’t bunt. Maybe you don’t bunt against the shift in every single situation, but you do in most. Even being successful half the time will make you amazing, relative to what would get done otherwise.

There are basically two possibilities. In one, it’s smart to bunt, because it’s a free hit, and hitters are dumb for not doing it more. In the other, it’s a lot harder to bunt decently than you’d think, so it’s less obvious. In the former, a bunt attempt is the clear preference. In the latter, it’s less clear, and a quality bunt is less about being smart and more about just executing well. When a hitter hits a dinger, people don’t say he played smart baseball. He just executed well with the swing.

Obviously this isn’t intended as anything against Kyle Seager. Kyle Seager is making me love him, and that was a hell of an RBI bunt single against the shift. He’s an All-Star level position player, on the Mariners, and he’s young and under team control forever. This is more about our collective response to the bunt attempt. Seager was praised for being clever and creative for doing the really obvious thing that would benefit both him and his team. It’s not so much smart that Seager bunted as it is stupid that other people don’t bunt more. So Seager is smart relative to the lefty-hitting norm, but the lefty-hitting norm isn’t smart.

I guess everything’s relative. I’m glad Kyle Seager isn’t a lefty-hitting idiot. He should be commended for not having so much of an ego that he did a dumb thing instead of the obvious thing. Bunt. Everybody, bunt against the shift. You’ll be amazed how quickly that shift would go away. They’re giving you a hit and you don’t even have to swing. We’ve grown so accustomed to decisions so dumb we lavish praise on that which simply isn’t. Again, glad about the whole Seager thing, but as a broader point, this is what we take to be smart baseball. Think on that for a minute.


23 Responses to “Smart Baseball”

  1. jordan on August 2nd, 2013 9:49 pm

    I’ve been saying this forever. If big papi would get good at bunting the guy could hit .400.

  2. ivan on August 2nd, 2013 10:07 pm

    When I was a kid, I read where someone had asked Babe Ruth about the shifts they put on him. Ruth said: “Hell, I could have hit .600 just slapping the ball to the left side.” When asked why he didn’t, Ruth replied: “Hell, they came to the ballpark to see me hit home runs.”

    Ruth hit .342/.474/.690 in his 22-year career. Everybody else should bunt, haha.

  3. DarkKnight1680 on August 2nd, 2013 10:41 pm

    Is it just me, or could Miller have taken a 45-50 foot lead and stolen home pretty easily by going on first move? What’s stopping him? The pitcher has no one to throw to, and there’s no way he can cover the 60 feet to tag him out before Miller covers the 50 feet back to 3rd. That picture just screams “free home base” to me.

  4. miscreant on August 2nd, 2013 11:10 pm

    As an Oriole Luke Scott did the same thing against the Blue Jays a couple of years ago. Twice in one game.

  5. G-Man on August 2nd, 2013 11:16 pm

    DarkKnight1680, you are correct, although the third baseman would likely move closer to third if Miller took that big a lead.

    Great play by Kyle. I hope the M’s get smart and sign him to a multiple year contract this winter. You get the best deals on players who aren’t near arbitration.

  6. MrZDevotee on August 2nd, 2013 11:26 pm

    Essentially what you’re saying Jeff is the same thing Chris Rock says in one of his jokes… He talks about black guys he knows bragging about being a good father, like they deserve a medal.

    His response: “You’re SUPPOSED TO BE A GOOD FATHER… You don’t get special credit for doing stuff you’re already SUPPOSED TO DO.”

    Something along those lines… Cracks me up. Chris Rock has many a Sullivan-like observation… Or the other way around.

    Good stuff, either way.

  7. Bender on August 3rd, 2013 12:10 am

    In the book The Year Babe Ruth Hit 104 Home Runs, which is a fascinating read on many levels, they have a section on his bunt singles and he had something like 25+ in the year he hit 60 home runs.

    If Babe Ruth would bunt for a single I think everyone should.

  8. Puffy on August 3rd, 2013 8:08 am

    I’ve been saying this forever. If big papi would get good at bunting the guy could hit .400.

    For what it’s worth, Ortiz is already known as an excellent bunter. Apparently, the Twins organization – in addition to trying to keep Ortiz from loading up and swinging hard – conducted constant bunting drills in which all young players and minor leaguers participated.

    He has definitely bunted successfully on the shift before. In general, however, it seems that the Red Sox are more apt to roll the dice on a Papi home run than accept more frequent bunt hits. His below average speed also contributes to the equation, making a sneak bunt to the left side more risky. He seems to be doing fine with his current approach.

  9. greentunic on August 3rd, 2013 8:48 am

    I get angry over batters jumping out of the way of a curveball with the bases loaded.

    Haha same concept.

  10. Eastside Crank on August 3rd, 2013 9:20 am

    Why can’t we have smart telecasts to go with the smart baseball? Wouldn’t it be great if they actually showed where the fielders were positioned on each batter? All we get to see are the pitchers and batters. You cannot appreciate how well or poorly the fielders are playing without knowing how they were positioned and how they reacted to the ball.

  11. stevemotivateir on August 3rd, 2013 10:18 am

    I wonder if Seager caught that himself and went for it, or if someone else did and made the suggestion. Not that it matters now, because every player should have learned from that.

  12. greentunic on August 3rd, 2013 10:19 am

    @ Eastside

    Agreed. Especially with a runner on third and less than two outs. They don’t always say if the infield is in or not. That’s a big deal, baseball wise.

  13. Westside guy on August 3rd, 2013 10:34 am

    The bad part about “smart broadcasts” is we’d have endured several years of watching Yuni be constantly in the wrong position…

  14. djw on August 3rd, 2013 10:35 am

    The “Why doesn’t anyone ever try to bunt against the shift” question pops into my head with regularity, but since virtually no one ever does it, I just kind of assumed there was some logical reason not to do it that wasn’t occurring to me for some reason.

    Once again, reminding myself that the general truth of “never bet against the stupidity of unexamined conventional wisdoms” goes double for baseball.

  15. djw on August 3rd, 2013 10:39 am

    I get angry over batters jumping out of the way of a curveball with the bases loaded.

    Not comparable, because 1) they’re following the rules, and 2) protecting themselves from potential injury.

  16. ripperlv on August 3rd, 2013 11:49 am

    Jeff is a unique writer with a unique perspective so I almost always enjoy the articles. I didn’t hear any comments on how unintelligent the Red Sox were.
    On a side note, I have to laugh when I get a visual of Big Papi legging out a bunt.

  17. greentunic on August 3rd, 2013 12:54 pm

    Djw. True but turning away will always grant you the base. An ump would never deny a base if a player turns their back to the pitch. Fernando Vina has this down to a science.

  18. dnc on August 3rd, 2013 1:32 pm

    “Not comparable, because 1) they’re following the rules, and 2) protecting themselves from potential injury.”

    Also 3) it’s human nature to dodge the pitch.

    Obviously, some players overcome this nature, but it’s absolutely the instinctive reflex.

  19. jordan on August 3rd, 2013 3:19 pm

    I was always taught that if you get a pitch that is going to hit you, then be a man and wear it. Never turn down a free base. In fact, I remember my high school coach always saying, if you aren’t going to wear it, there is always about 5 guys on the bench who will.

    Just turn your back to the ball and close your eyes. The motion of turning is infact protecting yourself so the ump will allow you the base. That said… don’t take a pitch in the knee area, that is asking for problems.

  20. G-Man on August 3rd, 2013 3:39 pm

    I’ve seen a batter called a couple times for not moving, but it is rare. Never when he turned his back.

    Batters need to learn to not get out of the way of the catcher on a steal attempt. Rarely do I see a hitter not duck away if he takes.

  21. greentunic on August 3rd, 2013 6:08 pm

    I sat and took a pitch without moving at all and was denied 1st base when I played. I then struck out that at-bat. That’s when I learned and was told to just turn the back to the pitch, like Jordan.

  22. Jeremariner on August 4th, 2013 2:48 am

    I’ve always been baffled that heavy shifts could be successful at this level of baseball when there’s such an obvious reaction to it. There’s something to be said for keeping defenses honest, and that something is “You should try to keep defenses honest.”

  23. Breadbaker on August 4th, 2013 3:28 am

    Isn’t the difference here that Seager had a man on third with no one out? A bunt single is an RBI, which is a lot better than a “productive out”. With no one on, if they’re going to shift on Seager, I’d rather take my shot at an extra-base hit than have him bunt all the time.

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