31 May 2008

Petty weekend pet peeve

Local sportscasters* who introduce a highlight of a bunt play by telling us we are about to witness some "fundamental baseball." For that matter, add them to the broader population of nostalgia-peddling drones who somehow accept the bunt is a fundamental baseball play at all.

Fundamental skills, as far as I understand them, are skills required for basic levels of success. Making a clean fielding play on a ball hit directly to you is fundamental, as is not swinging at pitches three feet high. Failure at these tasks usually means you'll have trouble cracking the lineup of a beer league outfit, let alone more competitive levels.

Bunting, however, is a specialized skill. There are only three conditions where it would be useful for player to learn to bunt effectively ahead of learning other skills. 1) The player is fast enough to use the bunt as a way to reach base, 2) The player is a far weaker hitter than his teammates, allowing him to use the sacrifice as a modest contribution (i.e. National League pitchers) 3) The league is an extremely adverse run-scoring environment (i.e., the dead-ball era).

The last point is where your average tradition cultist most often goes wrong. A basic tenet of sabermetric theory holds that outs become more valuable as it becomes easier to score runs. Therefore, a sacrifice bunt is a much bigger waste in a 12-11 game than a 2-1 contest. The Oakland A's were widely ridiculed for shelving the sacrifice bunt during the peak years of the "Moneyball" phase, but, given the well-known offensive increase across baseball and the team's own collection of disciplined sluggers, it was a decision that made sense. Now that the A's have less pure offensive punch, they're more likely to bunt. That's how a team adapts to its changing situation instead of doing whatever purists feel is somehow requisite to the game of baseball.

Amateur baseball, thanks to the aluminum bat and other factors, often has an even more favorable offensive output, making the bunt even less of a tactical necessity. Nothing, however, gets a cranky old traditionalist more worked up over the moral decadence of youth today than some kid fouling off a bunt. I remember going to an IU game several years ago where one of the hitters toward the middle of the Indiana order offered a bunt on the first pitch and shanked it foul, which set off a couple of old bird-watchers sitting a few feet away from me. The kid didn't attempt another bunt in that at-bat, presumably because he was much better at performing the fundamental batting skill of getting on base. Oh, the teams combined for roughly 20 runs in that game.

Now, there's another possible reason for a misunderstanding here, and that is because your average dumb sportscaster thinks "fundamentals" means "easy shit my grandmother could do." I suppose that last part may be true, which is why they teach bunting to NL pitchers, but that doesn't make it an important or even necessary skill to spend limited practice time teaching most players.

*I could have ended it here, really.