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Sacrificing Bunts

"The hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball," Ted Williams once famously wrote in Sports Illustrated, which, coming from someone who was exceptionally proficient at the act, either was the truth or simply a proclamation that fed his ego. Probably both.

While not all of us agree with Teddy Ballgame, we can concur that hitting a sphere moving 90 miles an hour - often dipping, spinning, or curving- with a round club while standing 60-feet, 6-inches away is a specialized skill mastered by a minuscule percentage of our citizenry.

So doesn't it make sense that a stationary round stick in the hands of a batter who simply is trying to make contact would have a much greater likelihood of success with that elusive orb than lumber in motion?

Yes, folks, we're talking bunting here, something the White Sox, along with many other clubs, disdain and ignore. This from a team that swings at most anything - the Sox have drawn just 31 walks in this young season, the fewest in the American League - and frequently comes up empty, as evidenced by its 7.5 strikeouts a game.

Pity the occasional baserunners, somehow finding themselves on first or second base with no one out and thirsting to advance.

Consider last Monday, in what eventually would be a 4-3 loss in Toronto, a victory that went to our beloved Mark Buehrle.

It's the top of the fifth, Jays lead 4-2, but Tyler Greene and Alejandro De Aza lead off with base hits. Jeff Keppinger, a man reputed to make contact but hitting a measly .153 after yesterday's loss to Minnesota, steps to the plate with Alex Rios on deck and Paul Konerko in the hole. The same Jeff Keppinger who has 29 sacrifice bunts on his career resume. Unfortunately and predictably, Keppinger swings away and hits into a double play.

Possibly manager Robin Ventura had Keppinger in swing mode because of the memory from three days prior. Alexi Ramirez totally screwed up a sacrifice bunt attempt in a 1-0, 10-inning loss in Cleveland. This time it was Conor Gillaspie doubling to lead off the top of the eight in a scoreless duel. Attempting to sacrifice, Ramirez fouled off the first pitch before popping up to the catcher on the next offering.

Laying down a bunt has a poor reputation. Years ago Baltimore's Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver, said, "On offense, your most precious possession are your 27 outs." He wasn't willing to sacrifice any of them, a belief echoed by the philosophy of Oakland GM Billy Beane in Moneyball, adopted by the sabermetric community, and professed by some local sports commentators who have been pounding Ventura mercilesslly over the matter.

However, when the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, they successfully used the sacrifice bunt 53 times during the regular season. Way back in 1959, before the days of the DH, the American League champion Sox moved runners over 84 times by bunting. This season the Sox have executed exactly one sacrifice bunt even though they are impotent when it comes to advancing runners.

Not surprisingly, the Sox, owners of a 7-11 record after two weekend losses to the Twins, not only don't advance runners, they don't score them either. In 14 of their 18 games, they've scored four runs or less. At least a bunt here or there would require the opposition to make a play rather than have Sox hitters trudge back to the bench after striking out or popping up.

De Aza dragged a bunt - not a sacrifice, but at least a bunt in an attempt to do something different - to the right of the mound in the sixth inning yesterday, and, sure enough, Twins pitcher Scott Diamond made a miserable throw past first base. De Aza wound up on third and jogged home on Keppinger's sacrifice fly, giving the Sox a short-lived 2-1 lead.

Another case in point: On Saturday in the top of the 11th inning in a 3-3 tie in Toronto, the first two batters for the visiting Yankees reached base and Ichiro Suzuki, who is a good bunter, strolled to the plate. He laid down a decent - not great - bunt to the third base side of the mound. Pitcher Aaron Loup, heeding the misguided advice of his catcher, tried to nail the runner at third. Unfortunately for the Jays, his throw was wild, both runners scored, and the Yankees won 5-3.

Part of the reason we see less bunting today is that players simply aren't equipped to square around and deaden the ball 30 to 50 feet from home plate.

A few years ago I found myself driving on I-44 in the area where Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas abut one another. Pulling off the highway for gas, I realized that I was just three miles from Commerce, the birthplace of Mickey Mantle.

Curious to see where the Mick grew up, we easily found his childhood home in the quiet village. The clapboard house was what you might have expected from a family where Mickey's dad Mutt supported the family as a laborer in the area's lead and zinc mines.

It wasn't the house that attracted our attention, it was the corrugated metal out-building where the rusted wall still displayed the dents from all the pitches that Mutt threw to Mickey as he was growing up.

Mickey's Out Building.JPG

Not only did Dad teach his son to be a switch-hitter, but - and this is my feeling - he taught him how to bunt, especially from the left side.

Mantle was arguably the premier power hitter of his era, but the record book also shows that he had 14 sacrifice bunts and 25 bunt hits in his 18-year career.

In 1956 Mantle hit .353 with 52 home runs and 130 RBI. He won the Triple Crown and was MVP. Yet, in the season's second game with the Yankees leading 6-1 in the top of the fourth inning and Jerry Lumpe on third base, Mickey laid down a squeeze bunt to pad the lead. Imagine Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols doing something like that.

The vast majority of today's big leaguers were the best players on their youth teams. When they took batting practice with two bunts - one down third and the other down first - and five or six swings, if these budding stars didn't get the bunts down, it didn't matter. The coach was likely to say, "Ah, that's okay. Just hit away."

Meanwhile, the kid who hit eighth or ninth would keep bunting until he did it right. So these kids who were high school and college superstars rarely - if ever - were asked to "lay one down." Judging by the lack of effective bunters in the major leagues today, once they entered pro ball, they still weren't trained in the art of bunting.

That's not helping the Sox much these days.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the White Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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