This is straight baseball – not a devotional, but, nonetheless, very interesting as an examination of “Where Has All the Bunting Gone, Long Time Passing.”
Baseball Rant Number 7….
Hall-of-Famer Eddie Collins had a record 512 of them for his career. In 1917, Ray Chapman, Cleveland shortstop, who would become the only player to be killed on a Major League Baseball field in 1920, set a record with 67 of them. Omar Visquel is the active leader with 205. The next two are pitchers Tom Glavine (191) and Greg Maddux (159). What are they? They’re called Sacrifice Hits, but we know them best as sacrifice bunts.
Now, why bring this up? We are all aware that bunting is definitely a lost art in the modern professional game. In the early days of the 20th Century, however, as we all know, bunting was considered an essential part of the game. Not only Collins and Chapman, but every big leaguer was expected to be able to do it. Ty Cobb had many bunt singles, as did Nap Lajoie, Wee Willie Keeler, and many other players at the time. During the so-called Dead Ball Era up until 1920, when teams usually played for one run at a time, not only was everybody expected to know how to bunt, but were rather frequently ordered to do it.
There are many good examples. In one famous incident, the 1907 Detroit Tigers of Cobb and Wahoo Sam Crawford were facing a rookie pitcher that the host Washington Senators had signed out of a minor league in Idaho. As he warmed up, they noticed his unusually long arms and easy sidearm deliver. What they couldn’t see was the ball. They could sure hear it, though, when it whacked into the catcher’s mitt. Not just that, though, but, as Crawford told it, they could actually hear the ball whistle past them as they stood at the plate. The pitcher’s name, of course, was Walter Johnson.
So what were the Tigers to do? How can you hit what you can’t see? Did they just go up there flailing at the Big Train’s invisible fastball and hoping they didn’t get hit by it? Of course not! They bunted on him! Difficult as even THAT was, it eventually worked and they won the game 3 – 2 over the busher, who in now considered by many to be the greatest pitcher of all time.
Another famous – or infamous – bunting incident took place in the 1915 World Series. That pitted the Boston Red Sox of Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper, and Duffy Lewis (along with a young lefty named Ruth) against the National League Champion Philadelphia Phillies, who featured a righthander named Grover Cleveland Alexander. In Game 5, played in Philadelphia at the Baker Bowl, the Phillies trailed the Bosox three games to one. In the bottom of the first, the first three Phillies reached base, loading them up for clean-up hitter Gavvy Cravath. Here’s a description of the year he had just completed: “1915 saw his best season as he hit 24 home runs, 11 more than any other player, leading the Phillies to their first pennant; he had a 3-run home run in the pennant-clinching game on September 29. He also led the league in runs (89), RBI (115, leading the NL by 28), total bases (266), walks (86), on base percentage (.393), and slugging (.510, leading the NL by 53 points), and led the NL in assists for the third time.” Pretty good numbers, especially for that time. But in the Series so far, he hadn’t done much with the bat. So manager Pat Moran, with the base loaded, none out, and a 3 – 2 count, orders the best NL hitter at that time to bunt. That’s right – bunt! So, of course, this being the Phillies, the strategy totally back-fires. He rolls an easy grounder to the mound, starting a rally-killing home-to-first double play. First baseman Fred Luderus plated the two base runners with a two-out double, but the heart was already cut out of the team. They went on to lose the game 5 – 4 and the Series, four games to one.
This wasn’t actually considered as bad a strategy at the time as we think it is today. Maybe Moran thought he would catch the Red Sox off-guard, who knows? Here are the career Sacrifice Hits for some other great hitters:
Tris Speaker 309
Ty Cobb 295
Harry Heilmann 277 (and he played well into the ‘20’s!)
Frankie Frisch 229 (played long after the Dead Ball Era)
Rogers Hornsby 217 (only the BEST right-handed hitter ever!)
Ozzie Smith 214 (the highest “modern” player on the list)
Nellie Fox 208
OK, why bring all this up? Because of the situation that came up in a recent Phillies game, as follows: Phils tied with the Padres, 5 – 5, at home in the bottom of the ninth. Ryan Howard leads off with a base hit to right. Now, the strategy is to win the game NOW, so the best thing to do is get the runner to second, known as SCORING POSITION. With no outs, it would be good strategy to bunt him to second – give up an out so the next two hitters have a shot of winning the game with a single. NOT SO FAST, though! The next batter is slow-footed slugger Pat Burrell. Forget any thought of a bunt – he has exactly ZERO sacrifice bunts in his career since 2000.
Now here’s some problems: a double play would be an inning killer, but the likelihood of that is very high. The pitcher is a side-arming righty who’s out there to induce ground balls from right handed batters. The infielders can also play way back so they can get most grounders he would hit. And, again, Burrell is slow, right-handed, and has a gigantic swing – prime DP territory.
So, why not bunt? It actually would have been good strategy to get Howard to second with NO outs and a bunt single, with the infielders playing so far back. But, of course, “that’s impossible! It’s not in his repertoire to bunt!” And that’s a key problem with today’s game – most hitters couldn’t bunt if their life depended on it. They probably don’t even practice it – with the exception of pitchers, of course. My contention is that every major leaguer – every professional ballplayer – should at least be ABLE to bunt, even if they don’t do it very often. It should be a weapon in their arsenal. If pitchers can do it (most of the time) successfully, any other hitter could.
Well, you might say, Burrell is a slugger – a home run guy, an RBI guy. Those guys don’t ever bunt. OK, then, let’s look at the record, shall we?
• Lou Gehrig: 106 career SH’s; the amazing thing is that he had 21 in 1927. Not only did he hit 47 HR’s and have 175 RBI’s, but he batted BEHIND Ruth – who was he moving up runners for? Probably for Bob Meusel, who was a pretty good hitter, too (after all, it was Murderer’s ROW). For the record, Bob Meusel had 103 RBI’s that year, and ALSO had 21 successful sacrifice bunts. Tony Lazzeri, another Hall of Famer, usually batted sixth. “Poosh-‘Em-Up” Tony had 102 RBI’s and, yes, had 21 sacrifices also. “Jumpin’” Joe Dugan batted seventh, but only had 43 RBI’s for the season, with 12 SH’s. Pat Collins usually batted eighth; he had 36 RBI’s, but only 4 SH’s – although he didn’t bunt much for the PITCHER.
• Babe Ruth: OK, what about the Babe? Well, look well, modern sluggers – the Sultan of Swat managed to successfully lay down 113 sacrifice bunts in his career! Wow! Now, I know what you’re thinking – Ruth started out as a pitcher with the Red Sox, so, of course, he bunted a lot before he became a permanent outfielder. Right? As the Amazing Carnac would say, “Wrong, Bambino-breath!” Boston figured out pretty early that super-scout Jack Dunn’s Babe was a fairly good hitter. In his entire Bosox career, Ruth bunted successfully only 19 times. The other 94 came in a Yankee uniform starting in 1920. Now, 1920 was a significant year because it was, statistically, the most dominant year any hitter has ever had against the rest of the league. It was the beginning of a new era in baseball – the Dead Ball was dead and the Golden Age was alive! Ruth swatted 54 HR’s, nearly doubling his previous record in 1919 of 29. The next guy in the league was George Sisler, with 19. And yet, somewhere in this amazing offensive season, the Babe had 5 sacrifice hits – without even Gehrig batting behind him! (Bob Meusel batted fourth behind him most of the time) Ruth had 14 SH’s in 1927 when he, incidentally, hit 60 bombs (I guess if you have Big Lou coming up behind you…). The Babe’s high total came in 1930, when he laid down 21 successful sacrifices, good enough for 5th in the league. He was part of the reason Gehrig had 174 RBI’s in a season where runs scored by the barrel-full and pitchers headed for the tall grass!
• Ted Williams: 5 career SH’s, including 3 in his rookie season of 1939. OK, but the Splinter was the first really modern selfish hitter. The game had changed some from the 1920’s. Besides, in his career he was the best hitter in the Red Sox line-up – the best hitter in almost ANY line-up in that era (maybe DiMaggio and Musial were close) – so he really had no one to bunt for. The best team he played for, the 1946 team, had Rudy York and Bobby Doerr batting after him. I think we concede that Teddy Ballgame should swing the bat every chance he gets! He got a lot of walks, so that was a much more effective way of moving the runner to second, anyway.
• Joe DiMaggio: the Clipper had 14 SH’s in his career. Again, being the best hitter by far (after Gehrig retired) in a very good line-up, he wouldn’t have much cause to give himself up… but his total still wasn’t ZERO!
• Ernie Lombardi: 18 SH’s: one of the slowest men ever to play the game, but he could still occasionally bunt when the situation called for it. He was reputed to be one of the most gifted natural hitters in his era. One thing he didn’t do very often was strike out – he was frequently among the league leaders in difficulty to KO. He also had no business doing it, but he even had 8 stolen bases in the bigs. Just goes to show you that he even had that as a very occasional weapon – major league ball players should be able to do EVERYTHING you can do on the field, regardless of natural gifts. (well, maybe not PITCH!)
• Willie Mays: 13 SH’s; not a lot, but he played when bunting was becoming less emphasized. He was also, far and away, the best hitter in his line-up. Even when Willie McCovey batted behind him, it wasn’t a good idea, most of the time, to take the stick out of his hands. He could certainly bunt for a base hit, if he wanted to, because of his great speed early on in his career. AND HIS TOTAL WAS STILL NOT ZERO!
• Hank Aaron: 21 SH’s; OK, most of these were in his first three years. After that, he was clearly the premier hitter on his team. He had 2 in Atlanta, and even 1 with the Milwaukee Brewers at the end of his career.
• Frank Robinson: 17 SH’s; again, 12 of these were in his first two years. He followed the pattern of Mays and Aaron – soon became the RBI-guy on his team, so it was rare for him to have the bat taken out of his hands. The other similarity with the above sluggers is the fact that they were all right-handed, which made it less common for them to bunt for a hit.
• Dick Allen: 19 SH’s; very much like the previous three, he had most of these early, until it was clear that his bat was by far the most potent in his line-up.
• Johnny Bench: 11 SH’s; usually batted in front of the RBI machine, Tony Perez, so it occasionally made sense for him to bunt. He knew how to do it, anyway, and did sometimes lay one down to get a bunt single when the Reds needed a base runner more than a less-likely long ball. In 1979, he had three sacrifice hits. That year, he usually batted fifth, behind George Foster and ahead of Ray Knight.
• Mike Schmidt: 16 SH’s; here’s a more modern player who was one of the game’s feared sluggers, but he had the ability to occasionally lay one down. Yes, he did have his last one in 1979, ten years before retirement. That was because, especially in his MVP years of 1980 and ’81, he became the most important RBI man in the line-up. Also, significant to notice, after 1980, Luzinski wasn’t lurking on deck behind him. It was up to guys like Glenn Wilson, Chris James, and Sixto Lezcano to protect him. It is amazing that he was ever PITCHED to after 1980, from the looks of things.
• Barry Bonds: 4 SH’s; did I say Ted Williams was a selfish hitter? Here’s the king of that kind of player. You gotta give him a little slack, though – early in his career, he was a lead-off hitter, who are called on much less frequently to sacrifice, at least in the NL. Later, during the Steroid Era, he wanted to get the most out of every at-bat; his offensive stats were truly phenomenal, so there was no sense in bunting. His last SH, tellingly, was in 1998.
Here’s some interesting stats related to the runs scored per game with some interesting teams:
• 1927 Yankees: 6.29 Runs Per Game (League Average: 4.92) used 204 sacrifice hits
• 1930 Yankees: 6.41 RPG’s (LA: 5.41) used 162 SH’s
• 1939 Yankees: 6.39 RPG’s (LA: 5.21) used 92 SH’s
• 1998 Yankees: 5.96 RPG’s (LA: 5.01) used 32 SH’s
• 2005 Yankees: 5.47 RPG’s (LA : 4.76) used 28 SH’s
How about some Phillies teams?
• 1929 Phillies: 5.82 RPG’s (LA: 5.36) used 132 SH’s
• 1950 Phillies: 4.60 RPG’s (LA: 4.66) used 66 SH’s
• 1964 Phillies: 4.28 RPG’s (LA: 4.01) used 97 SH’s
• 1976 Phillies: 4.75 RPG’s (LA: 3.98) used 59 SH’s
• 1977 Phillies: 5.23 RPG’s (LA: 4.40) used 59 SH’s
• 1980 Phillies: 4.49 RPG’s (LA: 4.03) used 77 SH’s
• 1993 Phillies: 5.41 RPG’s (LA: 4.49) used 84 SH’s
• 2004 Phillies: 5.19 RPG’s (LA: 4.64) used 64 SH’s
• 2005 Phillies: 4.98 RPG’s (LA: 4.45) used 62 SH’s
Interestingly, the record for the most sacrifice hits in a season was 231 by the Chicago Cubs in 1906. That was the year they won 116 games and had the highest winning percentage, .763, since 1901. The AL record was set the same year by their cross-town rivals the White Sox, with 206. And, not coincidentally, both teams won their pennants and met in the World Series, the only time the two Chicago teams have played in the Fall Classic. By the way, the “Hitless Wonders”, as the White Sox were called, won the Championship.
The records for the least sacrifice hits by a team in a season is revealing of the changing strategies in baseball. Contrary to common belief, the 1950’s was not a time when teams were sacrificing a lot. The fewest sacrifice hits NL record belongs to the 1957 New York Giants, with only 32 – they finished 6th in an eight team league. With the DH, AL teams are even less likely to bunt. The AL record for fewest sacrifice hits is a paltry 18 by the 1990 Toronto Blue Jays. They finished 2nd in their division that year with 86 wins.
Some other interesting facts about the 1927 Yankees:
• Pitcher Urban Shocker went 18 – 6 with an ERA of 2.84, second on the team to Waite Hoyt. In 31 games, he batted .241 with 10 RBI’s. He walked 7 times and was hit by a pitch 3 times, for an On-Base Percentage of .359. He also had 20 sacrifice hits.
• Pitcher Dutch Ruether batted .262, also had 10 RBI’s, and walked 8 times in 35 games, but had no sacrifice hits.
• Pitcher Wilcy Moore was mostly a relief pitcher, working in 50 games, but only starting 12. He was apparently a terrible hitter, finishing with 6 hits in 75 at-bats (a lot for a guy who was primarily a reliever!) for an appalling .080 average. He struck out an awful 38 times (in 50 games!), walking 4 times (I thought the Phillies played in the NL! Only the Phillies pitching staff would walk such a weak hitter that many times!) Oddly enough, though, he hit one HR and had 2 RBI’s, along with 7 sacrifice hits.
• What about the lead-off hitter and the number two guy? Well, normally the lead-off hitter doesn’t sacrifice too often – the pitcher would have to lead off the inning and get on base. But because the Yankees had some decent hitting pitchers, top-of-the-order man Earle Combs, who batted a scorching .356 for the season, had 12 SH’s. Twenty-two year-old shortstop Mark Koenig, the number two hitter, who would have many more opportunities to bunt, what with the year Combs had and with Ruth and Gehrig behind him, actually had 15 SH’s, which was FEWER than the four (Gehrig), five (Meusel), and six (Lazzeri) hitters in the line-up. Maybe Koenig didn’t bat second all season; possibly Lazzeri might have been number two for a while, I don’t know.
So, what is my conclusion? That sluggers should bunt more often? Not really, but they should do it OCCASIONALLY, at least. They should be ABLE to do, for certain. Why? Several reasons:
• There may come up a situation in a game when it would make sense, like a tie game at home with the lead-off hitter reaching first base – and especially if you’re a double-play threat.
• A tough relief pitcher – or even starter – may be in the game; it would be better than striking out or popping up or hitting into a twin killing.
• With all the extreme shifts defenses are going into today, they might be GIVING you a base if you can get it fair and far enough away from the pitcher. There’s a reason infielders are playing extremely deep – they can cut of more ground balls; they can catch more line-drives because of more reaction time; they can go back on flairs more easily and catch them in the air. Even if they THINK you COULD bunt, it would be to your advantage to play more honestly – which would open up the field more.
• You’re a Major League player! How long have you been playing this game?
• It may help to get out of a slump, maybe help get the timing back or something.
What happened in the situation I started this with? Remember – Ryan Howard led off the bottom of the ninth with a sharp single to right; Pat Burrell comes to bat with the score tied 5 – 5; the infielders are playing deep, waiting for the double-play ball; the pitcher is a side-arming right hander. Well, ironically enough, Pat “The Bat” topped a ball – it’s called a “swinging bunt”! He was thrown out at first, but, without trying, he did the right thing: got the runner into scoring position. The next batter, Aaron Rowand, sliced a double down the right field line, scoring Howard easily from second and winning the game.