How Bunting Works


Meet one of the current kings of the bunt: Juan Pierre. The action captured here shows Pierre bunting during the Marlins 5-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs in the third game of the 2003 National League Championship Series. See more baseball pictures.
Meet one of the current kings of the bunt: Juan Pierre. The action captured here shows Pierre bunting during the Marlins 5-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs in the third game of the 2003 National League Championship Series. See more baseball pictures.
© Vick McKenzie/NewSport/Corbis

They don't write songs about bunters. Not even sad ones.

They do sometimes make movies about them, though you wouldn't know it. Neither "The Pride of the Yankees" nor "The Babe" devotes time to the 106 and 113 career sacrifice bunts laid down by Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, respectively [source: Tapp]. About the closest Hollywood comes to a bunting hero is catcher Jake Taylor, who in "Major League" fakes Ruth's legendary called shot before bunting for a squeeze play.

No, a batter in the box wants to swing for the fences, rip the cover off, Roy Hobbs style, and send that pea on an all-expenses-paid trip to the moon. But beyond the blast, baseball is a game of tactics, and sometimes a bunt -- dropping the ball short and slow, right where it will give the infield fits and maybe score the runner on third (that's a squeeze play) -- wins games.

Years ago, every player's repertoire included bunting, even sluggers like Mickey Mantle, but many moon-shooters today lack the knack, partly because they're looking to mash some taters and partly because many post-"Moneyball" managers don't think sacrifice plays add up. They take a page from Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, who famously said, "I have nothing against the bunt in its place, but most of the time that place is in the bottom of a long-forgotten closet" [sources: Curry; Madden].

Others managers disagree. Better to advance a runner with a bankable bunt, they say, than to try to ding one over the fence -- especially with a weak hitter at the plate. Thus, in the National League, where teams can't fall back on designated hitters, pitchers need a decent bunt in their batting arsenal, as do leadoff hitters, who need to "set the table" for subsequent batters by getting players into scoring position [sources: Curry].

So the bunt is far from dead. In fact, some players continue to post record numbers in the short game. Miami Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre, better known as the active career leader in stolen bases (609), is also baron of the bunt. As of June 2013, after 13 seasons and change, he has scored 215 bunt hits (165 sacrifice bunts), quickly gaining on all-time bunt king Brett Butler's 245 in 17 seasons -- and has already passed Kenny Lofton (202), Otis Nixon (180) and Omar Vizquel (155). Kansas City Royals outfielder Willy Taveras also shows promise, posting 130 bunt hits in the majors since 2004 [sources: ESPN; Fangraphs; Fangraphs; Lempert; Rodriguez; Rodriguez].

Love it or hate it, most would admit that bunting is an art, one with its own peculiar techniques, physics and timing.

A Game of Stance

Rule 2.00 of Major League Baseball's official rules defines a bunt as "a batted ball not swung at, but intentionally met with the bat and tapped slowly within the infield." In a sense, then, a bunt is the opposite of a dinger. It aims short and down instead of out and long, absorbs impact instead of maximizing it and takes a tap instead of a swing.

Most players use one of two techniques: In a pivot bunt, common in the big leagues, the batter drops from a batting stance into a bunt posture as late as possible, hoping to catch the infield off-guard. In a square stance, typical of beginners, the player squares up immediately, which gives better plate coverage but offers no surprise and no easy way to avoid a wild pitch. A batter in a square stance needs to think inside the box -- the batter's box -- because stepping outside of it during a bunt (but not a bunt feint) will count as an out [sources: MLB; Morgan and Lally].

Either way, as a batter goes into a bunt stance, the bottom hand grasps the bat handle firmly but not tightly, which keeps control while absorbing impact. The top hand, meanwhile, slides up behind the bat to the midpoint or a little higher (near the label) and lightly pinches it between the fingers and thumb (the thumb stays on top). This grip absorbs impact, protects the fingers and grants finer bat and ball control [sources: Bristow; Morgan and Lally].

While bunting, the upper body is square with the pitcher, the knees are bent and the bat is held out from, and across, the body and the plate. Some hold the bat level while others prefer to tilt the top up. Either way, a good bunter keeps the bat high, near the top of the strike zone, with eyes sighting behind it. This stance makes it easier to judge pitches and to knock the ball down. Also, it's best to stay to the front of the batter's box because a shallow bunt from too far back can easily go foul [sources: Bristow; MLB; Morgan and Lally].

Foot placement depends on which bunt the batter uses and for what purpose. Generally, in a pivot, the feet stay where they began, and the batter balances one foot behind the other, like a surfer. Conversely, in a square stance, the feet square up with the batter's shoulders. As we'll see later, variants like slap bunts and drag bunts involve their own techniques -- and physics.

The Physics of "Catching" Heat

From a physics standpoint, a bunt, like a swing, is a matter of momentum.

Anyone experiencing a car accident or a football tackle intuitively understands momentum: The bigger they are -- and the faster they move -- the harder they hit. As it happens, this is pretty much on-base, because the physics definition of linear momentum, p = mv, says that momentum (p) = mass (m) times velocity (v). Roughly speaking, mass measures inertia -- the tendency of a thing to resist changes in its state of motion -- while velocity refers to a combination of speed and direction.

Now, if you are prone to physics panic or allergic to algebra, don't stop reading just yet. Although a swing entails all kinds of variables -- from the batter's body dynamics to the swing's angular whip -- we can ignore most of these factors because the impact force between bat and ball is so much bigger [source: Fencl].

Let's take a closer look at that impact.

According to Newton's laws, barring outside interference, momentum in a collision -- such as the smashing of a bat into a ball -- is conserved. In other words, what goes in must come out. Often, some portion of momentum transfers from one object to the other in the process. In a successful swing, for example, so much of the momentum of the bat is transferred to the ball that its direction is reversed.

Most collisions are inelastic, meaning some energy is lost to deformation. Just as cars don't bounce off each other like hockey pucks, baseballs don't stay round during impact. Instead, they (and, to a lesser degree, bats) compress and rebound, resulting in an energy loss described by a coefficient of restitution (e) between 0 and 1, with lower values meaning more energy lost. Modern baseballs produce a restitution coefficient of around 0.55 for a 90 miles per hour (145 kilometers per hour) pitch [sources: Kirkpatrick; Manning; Russell].

The physics at play during a bunt are even simpler, but the goal is reversed. Where a slugger wants to tee off on the ball, a bunter tries to absorb its momentum. In fact, coaches often instruct bunters to "catch" the ball with the bat -- easier said than done when pitches can curve, slide, drop or scream in at better than 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour). Bunters must carefully avoid popping up, rolling foul or back-spinning the ball such that it strikes the bat a second time (an automatic out) [sources: Short].

Batters will sometimes bunt with a stiffer bat, too. As we'll see in this next section, it all comes down to what they want to accomplish.

To Bunt or Not to Bunt -- That Is the Question

So close! California Angels' third baseman Ron Jackson (r) tags New York Yankee Dave Winfield after Yank Don Baylor (not shown) failed to bunt the call on an attempted suicide squeeze play. The Yanks beat the Angels 6-2 that August 1983 afternoon.
So close! California Angels' third baseman Ron Jackson (r) tags New York Yankee Dave Winfield after Yank Don Baylor (not shown) failed to bunt the call on an attempted suicide squeeze play. The Yanks beat the Angels 6-2 that August 1983 afternoon.
© Bettmann/Corbis

Bunting, says Bill James of sabermetrics fame, is "the only play in baseball that both sides applaud." Nevertheless, the "short game" still sees its share of tactical uses.

Probably the most celebrated example is the squeeze play, in which a batter risks being thrown out at first by bunting so the runner on third can score. The squeeze play has two variants. In a safety squeeze, the runner waits until after the bunt to take off for home. In a suicide squeeze, the runner heads home as the pitch is thrown. If the bunter misses or flies out, the runner will easily be tagged out or thrown out for a double play -- hence the name [source: Morgan and Lally].

A squeeze play is an almost guaranteed out at first, so it's not an option for a team with more than one out (with two outs, an out at first would end the inning and scotch the scoring run). It is also a poor bet with two strikes because, unlike a foul tip from a swing, a foul bunt counts as a third strike. In fact, squeeze plays are fairly rare, because a batter coming to the plate with one out and a runner on third will likely swing away or hit for placement unless the runner on third sports a set of wheels and a turbocharger and there is a weak hitter (but good bunter) at bat [source: MLB].

A squeeze play is a special case of a sacrifice bunt, in which a bunter sacrifices a base hit to advance a runner. With a runner on first, the bunter would aim between the pitcher's mound and first; with a runner on second, or runners on first and second, the batter would bunt toward third to pull the third baseman off the bag [source: Morgan and Lally].

The creative bunter has other options too, such as the slap bunt, in which the batter chops at the ball after faking both a hit and a bunt. A player might also try to bunt for a hit. For example, a left-handed batter might try a drag bunt, in which the bunter's weight shifts forward during the pivot, gaining a jump on the run to first. The move requires almost balletic grace and timing to pull off well; novices will try to run while bunting, or will not hold the bat stiffly enough to keep the ball fair [sources: Adair; Curry; Morgan and Lally].

Mickey Mantle's drag bunts were legendary. In 1956, he beat out more than a dozen during his successful pursuit of baseball's Triple Crown, in which a single player leads the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in [sources: Friend; Povich, ESPN].

Ultimately, bunting changes the rhythm of the pitch, pulls players out of position and puts the infield under pressure to catch quickly, make smart decisions and throw well -- all useful advantages for the team at bat.

To quote precision hitter Wee Willie Keeler's sage advice: "Hit 'em where they ain't" [source: Adair].

Author's Note: How Bunting Works

I've always been a fan of team players and playmakers. You can keep your homerun kings, your ball-hogging board slammers and your hail-Mary-hucking QBs -- give me the guy who will lay down a sacrifice bunt, dish the rock or throw the perfect block. It's not just that they are unsung heroes; it's that I appreciate the skill level, the discipline and the teamwork their play represents. I admire the vast array of tools in their kit -- and the options those moves open up for their coaches and teams.

So let's hear it for the Brett Butlers, Larry Birds and Tom Rathmans of the world. You don't build dynasties on the backs of one or two showboats, but a good utility player might get you halfway there.

Related Articles

Sources

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