To bunt or not to bunt?
This may not be Shakespearean, but it weighs heavily on the minds of those who carry bat, glove and a penchant for scoring runs.
There is much debate in softball circles about whether some coaches take bunting to the extreme and ruin too many potential big innings.
It’s a lively topic around the Braden River softball program and popped up again this week in the Pirates’ maiden voyage to the state tournament.
It makes one wonder if too much reliance was put on Courtney Mirabella, the Pirates’ ace pitcher who brought a 0.47 earned-run average into the final four and was averaging close to two strikeouts per inning.
She won five 1-0 games during the season, and the thinking of Braden River head coach Doug Powell seemed to be to get a run and hold on. He believes in bunting, or playing small ball, and that’s his right, but there is a dissenting viewpoint out there.
Bunting is a lot more popular in softball than baseball, where some experts are calling it an archaic strategy. One thing for sure is that bunting didn’t help Braden River in the postseason.
The one-run-and-hold-on philosophy puts an awful lot of pressure on Mirabella and stress on the defense. Those on the other side of the coin say Mirabella’s strength gave the team the luxury of going for a big inning and forsaking small ball.
In Braden River’s four most important games down the stretch run of the season (district title game, region semifinal, region final and state semifinal), bunting was at the forefront of the offensive strategy, and several players later said they were unhappy about it.
Braden River attempted 10 sacrifice bunts during those games and produced one run off them. It came when the Pirates were down 2-0 in the sixth against Lakewood Ranch in the district title game. They opted to sacrifice bunt when they got their leadoff hitter on. Mirabella got an RBI double, but was left stranded and only had one runner on when she got her hit.
There is an old maxim in baseball that you never take the bat out of a good hitter’s hands by bunting. Mirabella (.333 batting average), who bats third in the lineup and is one of four regulars hitting over .330, was ordered to bunt four times in those four games, the most of any player. Ashley Allard, who bats second and carried a .360 average into states, was given the bunt sign three times.
Many baseball minds agree sacrifices of any sorts are aptly named because they make no contributions. Outs, they say, are just too precious to give away.
Softball is not baseball, but it’s certainly close enough to compare statistics. And there are those who argue bunting is an art that should stay in the closet, especially if you are playing against a good defense regardless if it’s softball.
According to an analytical study of bunting by Dan Levitt (“Empirical Analysis of Bunting”) and others, executing a successful sacrifice bunt actually lowers a team’s chances of scoring a run.
In a 15-year examination of the American League, if a team had a runner on first base with no outs they can be expected to score an average of .877 runs in the inning. However, if a successful sacrifice bunt moves the runner to second, the expected runs drops to .693 before the inning ends.
A team that had a runner on second base with two outs scored an average of .330 runs per inning.
Many similar studies are out there.
To make the third batter in your lineup (usually a team’s best hitter) bunt with one out dramatically reduces the success of the strategy even more -- unless perhaps you are playing a team prone to making errors.
Granted, high school softball is not the major leagues, but there are some awfully good teams that can play defense, particularly when you get deep into the postseason.
The analysis agrees with the strategy promoted in the best-seller book.
Overuse of the bunt is one of the main criticisms baseball analysts level at conventional baseball wisdom, and analysts argue bunting with your best hitters reduces the effectiveness of the strategy even more. If you are going to bunt, don’t use the top of the order, especially those in the 2-3-4 spots.
Or maybe just hit away.
Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 745-2112.