Commentary | Manager Joe Maddon vows Rays will become better bunters

adell@bradenton.comMarch 10, 2013 

To bunt or not to bunt?

Joe Maddon doesn't have to don his Shakespearean robes to answer the question.

Don't be fooled by the "outcome bias," the Tampa Bay Rays manager says.

Bunting for base hits is a lost art, and Maddon wants to bring it back to his Rays.

Maddon says most hitters cannot see the beauty of bunting. It's a reason they are not very good at it. Quite a few are awful.

Few managers use charts and sabermetrics more than Maddon to predict how an at-bat will turn out. But he often reads the results differently.

He even sees positives in bunting with two strikes, despite the practice's do-or-die implications.

So Maddon is trying to get his players to improve their skills in an art that has become as archaic as Wilt Chamberlain's under-handed free throw.

"Everybody could become a good bunter if they want to. It's a simple technique. It's easy to practice, and it doesn't tire you out," Maddon says.

So why the resistance?

Maddon refers back to the illogical thinking concept.

"If they are bunting for a hit and it's an out, they feel it's a wasted at-bat. There are so many positives that could've occurred, but it's so hard to sell that point,"

he says. "That outcome bias messes with a lot of people's heads, like 'if I had not bunted I probably would've gotten a hit.'"

Maddon mentions New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle. The year he won the Triple Crown, he had 11 base hits bunting. That usually had a demoralizing effect on the opponent, Maddon says.

When Mantle got a base hit bunting, it electrified the crowd similar to the way slam dunks that ignite an entire basketball arena.

When the switch hitter either dragged a bunt down the first base line or laid a perfect one down third base, Yankee Stadium would erupt.

Since the mid-1990s with the Steroid Era and power surge, bunting has been put on the back burner. Ten of the 11 batters who had a bunt success rate of more than 50 percent played before 2000.

Brett Butler led the majors in bases-empty bunt hits from 1990 through '93 and had the most bunt hits in a single season with 29 in '92. He is the career leader in bunt hits with 188.

Maddon puts bunting myths in the same category as the third-to-first pickoff move.

"It's staggering that guys with speed don't want to do it," Maddon says. "All these built-ins that guys don't even want to work on something that could make them better. It's frustrating as a coach, but those are the things that have to be nurtured way before you get here."

Maddon said Sean Rodriguez may have slumped last year in part because his number of bunts and bunting skills diminished.

"Sean was a much better bunter a few years ago, and that is what got him going," Maddon says. "There are certain days you go up to the plate and you don't feel good. You are not seeing the ball well. The third baseman is playing back and you are down by three in the seventh inning and leading off. Why not? Cal Ripken was good at it. If you were going to give it to him, he was going to take it."

The most successful bunter last year (by percentage) was Alcides Escobar, who reached base on 11 of 13 attempts bunting for a base hit. Erick Aybar led baseball with 15 base hits on bunts (27 attempts). Elvis Andrus had the best success on sacrifice bunts, going a perfect 17-for-17. Juan Pierre batted .556 in bunt hit attempts and had a 94 percent success rate in sacrifice bunts.

The Rays were not among the leaders, and Maddon is working hard to change that.

"A good bunter is somebody who really wants to be a good bunter," he says. "We have to get better. It's a mindset within a player. You bring the corner infielders in and that opens things up. Even a two-strike bunt has a lot of positive implications."

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-7080, ext. 2112. Follow him on Twitter at @ADellSports.

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