The Argument for the Fair-Foul Bunt03 May 2012 by Patrick
Every afternoon, my Twitter feed is inevitably punctuated with lamentations over a mislaid bunt. It’s an act equated with cowardice, bearing the mark of gray-haired managers conducting mindless and archaic rituals. As a strategy, it’s pointless. As an action, it’s nothing more than surrender, impotent and futile. As a game mechanic, the bunt is broken. Something has to be done.
For most people, especially those of the statistical bent, that something is simple: stop bunting. In our current offensive era, the price of the bunt is too great. For all but pitchers and the most tepid of hitters, the sacrifice of a potential multi-base hit is too great a cost for the chance at legging out an infield single. And the sacrifice bunt is even worse; as Tango, Lichtman and Dolphin note early in The Book, game states simply don’t often [-ed.] justify the strategy. The most intuitive example is the bottom of the ninth inning, runner on first, no outs. The average manager would call for the sacrifice and be thrilled with having a runner in scoring position with one out. And yet in doing so, the team’s odds of winning have dropped from 35.3% to 29.6%. An out is too valuable to be sacrificed, no matter how nobly.
However, there’s an aesthetic power within the bunt. Part of it lies in the sacrifice itself, the unselfishness it shows and willingness to put team before self. Another part rests in deception. We admire the physical feats of strength in our athletes, but we’re doubly impressed by their cunning, their ability to defeat their opponents spiritually as well as physically. The flashing neon green of Rickey’s batting gloves, the brazenness of the shift, Drysdale’s fastball up and in: these are all moments of psychological warfare, a combination of style and strategy, an imposition of the will.
Every sport has its feints, its moments of clever misdirection: football has the draw play, hockey the stick deke, tennis its drop shot. In each case the offensive player uses deception to manipulate the odds in his or her favor. The bunt seems ideal for this purpose. It’s provides the batter with alternatives, an opportunity for hitters to create their own style. The more individuality that can be imbued into the pitcher-hitter matchup, the more interesting that matchup is. The bunt is exciting; it provides us with quick action, snap decisions, bare-handed grabs and throws across the body to first. It seems a shame to throw these things away just because they don’t help one’s team win.
We shouldn’t hate the bunt. We should hate the game for killing it.
There was a time when the bunt was not only acceptable; it was noble. In the 1870s, the National League had just organized, and people were still trying to sort out this what this “base ball” game was all about. A viable strategy in this era was the fair-foul bunt: if a ball landed in fair play and then rolled foul, even in front of the bag, it was considered in play. Enterprising batters would chop at the pitch in an attempt to put English on the ball, spinning it away from fielders. Rather than being shameful, however, baseball culture of the 1870s treated the fair foul bunt as a legitimate and even honorable practice. Henry Chadwick, baseball’s first chronicler and robber baron, defended the play against its critics, countering arguments that the fair foul being easy or cheap as “absurd”.
Few people were able to master the skill; none was better than Ross Barnes, who used it to hit over .400 four out of six years. Numerous steps were taken to restrict the fair foul, including the creation of the batter’s box, moving the plate into foul territory, then further scooting the batter’s box a foot farther back from the plate. None of these change hurt Barnes, who hit .406 in 1876. The following year it was eliminated entirely, not because it was deemed unfair, but because umpires, who at that point lined up off to the side of the plate, had difficulty determining fair and foul balls in front of the plate. The fair foul bunt was soon forgotten, and the bunt itself has been dying slowly ever since.
The umpire stands where he belongs now, and the reasons for banning the fair-foul bunt are gone. There isn't much chance that it will break or even significantly alter the game. It’s unlikely that hitters would be able to consistently put the kind of English on a 95 mile per hour fastball that Ross Barnes could against the junk of his own era. Scott Podsednik’s major league career is probably still over.
But at the same time, there’s no reason to put up extra barriers against a tactic that’s already disadvantageous enough. It’s time to restore some incentive to the bunt, and perhaps provide an opportunity for style and excitement in the process. Anything that gives hitters more choices and gives audiences something to watch beyond strikeouts and dingers can only be a good thing.