Before we start, I have to say that after spending last night’s gameday post bashing Kendrick…the phrase “egg on my face” comes to mind. I apologize, and only hope that KK continues to pitch like he did last night. But moving on.
There’s a scene in Little Big League (my third-favorite baseball movie of all time), where Billy Heywood, the 12-year-old soon-to-be manager of the Twins, proves his strategic prowess to the Twins brass by playing out a scenario. He suggests that Lou Collins, the team’s star first baseman, swing away in a late-inning situation with runners on. The pitching coach disagrees, suggesting that Lou bunt to move the runners over. I don’t remember the exact scenario, and I can’t find the exact quote, but Billy responds by saying that Lou bunting would set in motion a chain of events that would take the bat out of the hands of the entire heart of the Twins’ lineup.
That said, I think it would be a good idea to teach Ryan Howard to drag bunt.
Here’s the problem. In 2006, his MVP year, Ryan Howard hit .313, with an absurd .356 BABIP. This makes sense, because when Howard hits a ball in play, it’s usually a warning track fly ball or a guided missile somewhere in between the first and second basemen that falls for a hit. In order to combat this, teams started pulling the Ted Williams Shift on him, moving the third baseman to shortstop, the shortstop to second base, and the second baseman to short right field. Within 2 years, Howard’s BABIP dropped to .285 and his average fell to .251 with roughly the same strikeout ratio.
How do we combat this? Well, Howard can continue banging his head against the wall and hammering screaming liners into the right side of the infield for easy outs, or we can get proactive about it. This is where drag bunts come in.
I got the idea when I remembered a situation where Jason Varitek, seeing the infield playing back on him, bunted for a hit in the second inning of Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS. If Varitek, quite possibly the slowest non-Molina in baseball, can drop a bunt for a hit, I’m sure Howard, who’s like a train (takes a long time to accelerate but can book it when he’s up to speed) can do the same from the left side of the plate.
The obvious question: why would you take the bat out of the hands of your most dangerous hitter? Well, let’s say Howard learns to lay that slow roller down the third base line with some consistency. If he gets two bunt hits a month, that’s 30 points of batting average, what Billy Williams called the difference between a good hitter and a great hitter. Once that happens, teams can do one of two things: on the one hand, they could eat those two hits and continue shifting, at which point, Howard gets on base for free more or less whenever he feels like it. On the other hand, they could stop shifting so drastically, and Howard can continue spraying liners through the hole as he pleases.
Before we go any further, I should stipulate that Howard shouldn’t go up there looking to bunt in the late innings of a close game with two runners on. But if he’s leading off the second inning of a 0-0 game, why not try it? After all, getting on base is half the battle, and once Jimmy Rollins comes back, Howard will have three all-stars hitting behind him to drive him in. I’m not saying that he needs to go up there looking to bunt every time, but it’s worth trying every once in a while if you’re trying to get the inning started.
So can this work? Believe it or not (and thanks to Corey Seidman for bringing this to my attention), someone’s trying this already. Down in Tampa, Carlos Pena faces a similar shift, and has started bunting for hits. I emailed R.J. Anderson, a really nice dude who writes for FanGraphs and Maddon’s Mission (a truly unique and insightful blog in a world of copycats) to get the take of a Rays fan, particularly one who knows a lot more than I do. Since the start of 2009, Pena has attempted to reach base by way of the bunt 9 times and has been successful 6 times. So he’s trading a 10% chance of hitting a homer for doubling his OBP. Not a bad trade. Quoth Anderson:
In the case of almost any batter, dropping a bunt works best when the defense seems entirely unprepared for it. Say Ben Zobrist is up, and he’s batting right-handed, and the third baseman is playing back, why not drop one if there’s a reasonable chance he beats it out? Worst case, he’s out, and the third baseman has to adjust next time up. Carl Crawford has never been good at bunting and he’s been showing A LOT this year, defenses respond to the threat. And if they don’t? Make them.
The defense knows that if Pena puts the ball in play, it’s usually going to right field. They also seem willing to trade OBP for SLG, that’s a worthhwile trade for the Rays, since they have good hitters coming up still. Maybe you can make the case Los hasn’t bunted enough, since the defense isn’t really adjusting for it yet.
As much as the Ted Williams Shift has become de rigeur for stopping lefty power hitters, it has its weaknesses (Paging Pedro Feliz!), and guys like Howard are going to keep slamming liner after liner into the shift until they start exploiting those weaknesses. As of right now, Ryan Howard’s swinging the bat pretty well, so there’s no real incentive for him to do things differently, but there will come a time this year when that bat cools off, and he’s looking for a way to get on base. I know it sounds crazy, but what’s the worst that could happen?