BASEBALL 2017: Sacrifice bunts are a dying art in baseball
CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) Get `em on, move `em over, drive `em in.
That old-school philosophy doesn't play in the major leagues anymore. Teams rely more on the long ball than small ball.
As a result, the sacrifice bunt is a dying art.
There were only 1,025 sacrifices in the majors last season, down from 1,667 in 2011. The average of .21 sacrifices per game in 2016 was the lowest in baseball history, according to Baseball Reference.
The influence of sabermetrics is a major reason why sac bunts are down - batters just don't try to get `em down anymore.
''A lot of managers don't like to waste outs and they consider a bunt a wasted out,'' said Philadelphia Phillies first base coach Mickey Morandini, who had 61 sacrifices in an 11-year career.
Sabermetricians have argued for years that teams have a better chance of scoring a runner from first base with no outs than scoring a runner from second base with one out. They have data to prove it and more teams are using detailed statistical analysis.
''I do think if you run some of the numbers, big numbers like every game for 70 years, there's probably, you can say if you swing away in bunt situations, whatever you would call a bunt situation, your odds of scoring are greater,'' Rockies manager Bud Black said.
Fewer managers are inclined to let a non-pitcher bunt unless it's a one-run game or tie game in the late innings. American League teams bunt far less because they use a designated hitter.
The Boston Red Sox had eight sacrifices last year. But they had seven players hit double-digit home runs, including five with more than 20.
Manager John Farrell said in spring training he wants players to consider bunting for hits to counter defensive shifts. Drag bunts aren't sacrifices, so don't expect the Red Sox to give up many outs to move a runner.
Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar recently spent a day switching from a Triple-A exhibition game to a Double-A contest on adjacent fields, attempting to reach on bunt singles in all seven at-bats. He went 0 for 7.
''It's something that I want to have as a tool, something in my back pocket,'' Pillar said.
There's another reason why sacrifice bunts are down. It comes down to practice and execution.
''Guys don't want to work at it and they can't bunt,'' Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa said. ''They don't know how to bunt. To me, if you practice bunting, it's the easiest thing in the world. If you don't practice, it's the hardest thing in the world.''
Technique is a problem. Some players still square around in the batter's box when they're trying to bunt. That decreases their ability to put it down successfully, according to Bowa and Morandini. Both former major leaguers explained the proper way to bunt is to pivot in the batter's box. When a batter spins his feet while staying in place, he maintains better bat control and can get out of the way of an errant pitch.
Morandini's five-step guide to sacrifice bunting is simple: move back in the batter's box; pivot; hold the bat at the top of the strike zone; ensure full plate coverage; aim for a bunt between the plate and the mound.
''You gotta want to bunt, you gotta want to get it down,'' Morandini said. ''It's a mentality. You gotta understand it's helping your team win and it's an important part of the game.''
Bowa had 151 sacrifices during a 16-year career played mostly with the Phillies in the 1970s and early 80s. He's exasperated by the inability to bunt.
''It's embarrassing to see guys at the big leagues not be able to lay down a sacrifice bunt,'' Bowa said. ''It's embarrassing. But, it's not a priority. Lots of teams don't want to give away outs.''
Philadelphia's position players work on bunting each day in spring training. They focus more on bunting for hits during batting practice in the regular season. Pitchers work on it throughout the season.
''The reason pitchers don't bunt, they're afraid of getting hit,'' Bowa said. ''They go down to the batting cage and bunt. They bunt 50, 75 balls a day, but in a game they're afraid of getting hit.''
Phillies starter Jeremy Hellickson offered another explanation for pitchers having trouble bunting.
''Guys don't just feed you a heater to let you get the bunt down anymore,'' Hellickson said. ''It's changed since I've come into the league. We try to strike a guy out instead of giving him a pitch to bunt.''
Failure to get a bunt down in a close game not only frustrates managers and coaches, but it can grate on a player who doesn't do his job. Some pitchers take that negative vibe out to the mound and it affects their performance.
''It's crazy because you can't take it for granted,'' Phillies right-hander Vince Velasquez said. ''It's that one thing that can make a big difference in the game if you don't get that bunt down. Your whole mentality is definitely changed going to the mound. You are beating yourself up because you didn't get that bunt down.''
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