Time Out: June 18, 2014

In the yesteryear of baseball, bunting was an art form. Every bunt type employed by a batter bunting the ball; the sacrifice, the squeeze, the drop bunt, or drag bunt were part of the arsenal a batter brought to the plate.
The advent of baseball’s sabermetric era and the analytics it provides has almost delegated bunting to the scrap heap of baseball strategies. Analytics and their expected run differentials build a strong case that the sacrifice bunt, in particular, is statistically self-defeating. Common modern baseball wisdom says utilizing all three outs by swinging the bat trumps giving up an out to move a base runner by utilizing a sacrifice bunt.
In minimizing the positive effects of the sacrifice bunt, baseball has seen a steep decline in every type of bunting. And, with bunting becoming a sparsely used offensive tool, the bunting skills of professional baseball players has visibly fallen, making those times a manager employs a sacrifice bunt to advance a runner as a late inning one-run production strategy, an arduous adventure at best.
But, with baseball’s defensive shifts becoming more and more pronounced in the game, maybe bunting, specifically, bunting for a base hit will make a comeback. The bunt hit is actually a pretty good baseball bet, an offensive ploy rewarding batters with their highest average on balls put in play. Batters who bunt for hits at the highest averages are successful near or better than one-half of their bunt attempts.

How about a bunt?
Watching Lucas Duda bat against exaggerated defensive shifts in recent Met games got me thinking ‘why not bunt?’ Everybody knows on-base percentage is a baseball analytical golden ticket. It makes sense to me, that situationally driven, bunting for a base hit against drastic overshifts maximize a batter’s chances of reaching base safely with a hit.
No, it doesn’t make sense to see Duda drop down a bunt with two outs and the bases cleared or even a single runner on first, but when the big guy leads off an inning or comes to the plate late in the game with a tie score and less than two outs, why not use one half of the field manned by a single defender to drop down a bunt to reach first safely?
To his credit, Duda is not averse to situational bunting. When Duda bunted for a hit in the opening game of the current Philly series, the Met broadcast team chatted about the fact that Lucas has recently spent additional time in the batting cage working on his bunting skills. Apparently, it was bench coach Bob Geren who suggested to Duda that at certain times during a baseball game, bunting might be a winning strategy for the big guy.

Still a valuable tool
Baseball dinosaurs like me still consider bunting a valued part of the game, a ploy that can confuse an opposing defense and win games. I loved Texas manager Ron Washington’s take on bunting when recently asked at a press conference whether anyone had ever shown him the analytics that show bunting might not make sense.
“When I feel it’s necessary, not when the analytics feel it’s necessary, not when you guys feel it’s necessary, not when somebody else feels it’s necessary,” Washington sputtered. “It’s when Ron Washington feels it’s necessary.”
Washington was referring simply to the sacrifice bunt and his explanation shows just how complex that form of bunting can be. “I look at the opposing pitcher, the guys at the plate and the situation and I’m saying, ‘How can I give us an opportunity to get this runner where I want to get him? If I’ve got the right person at the plate, I’m going to make him bunt. If it’s a situation where we have runs already and we’ve got a decent lead early in the game, I’ll probably let him hit. But if we’re in a situation where the game is close ... I’m going to make him bunt. It’s simple.”
To my way of thinking, Washington has analyzed the analytics well. There’s room for argument on both sides of the sacrifice bunt issue. But, with lopsided defensive baseball schemes becoming more and more common in the professional game, the time could be ripe for a ‘bunt for a hit’ bunting comeback.

Soccer is popular
The third time was the charm for the United States national soccer team as the red, white, and blue finally found a way to get past Ghana, 2-1, winning their 2014 World Cup Group G opening round contest on Monday. The Americans had been defeated by Ghana in the last two World Cup tournaments.
Typical of magical team sporting moments, it was a little-known substitute, John Brooks, taking the place of an injured regular, who became the national hero of the moment. Brooks got the nod when Matt Besler was hobbled with a hamstring injury.
Reading the extensive preview coverage of the World Cup in the New York dailies for the past week and then seeing photos of thousands of Chicago soccer fans watching Monday’s action on a huge outdoor scree at Grant Park is proof positive of how far soccer has come in America. The “beautiful game” is running wild like a stampeding buffalo herd.
Last week I was at the Barn at Kirkside Park in Roxbury, looking for a costume for this weekend’s Middletown Historical Society Cemetery Tour. I couldn’t help but notice a large group of kids on the other side of the stream behind the barns playing pick-up soccer. Big kids, medium sized kids, little kids, it was like everyone was there. Running free and running wild on the soccer thing is the thing to do these days.

Reflecting another era
Those kids and that soccer field are symbolic of seismic shifts in youth sport tastes over the last several decades. A half-century ago, when I was a tadpole, kids gathered day after day at the community fields to play baseball. As soon as the snow cleared and through the World Series sandlot or ‘pickup‘ baseball games were the rage. Everybody played; guys, girls, young, old. Baseball was deeply established as part of the culture of small towns, suburban neighborhoods or urban settings.
When I arrived in Margaretville some 17 years ago, weather permitting, the outdoor basketball court behind MCS was packed almost every late afternoon or evening. The court was lighted and groups of kids played “pick-up” basketball games almost every night of the week.
I can’t remember when I’ve seen a group of five or more kids spontaneously, without adult supervision, playing baseball on school or community fields. The baseball movie at the Cooperstown Hall of Fame starts with a group of neighborhood kids represented first in black silhouette images with all that background chatter that was so much of the “pick-up” baseball game I knew as a kid. As the intro evolves the silhouettes take shape as real kids playing baseball.

Nostalgic moment
The movie intro was meaningful to me, real and vibrant, describing a life I knew intimately. It was only later, when I had time to sit and reflect, that I appreciated the fact that the baseball world in the Hall of Fame introduction depicts a sports world that has become extinct, a former way of life that is almost as outdated in the form and style depicted in the movie as the Model T Ford.
Hard times have hit the world of “pick-up” basketball, too. Seeing a group of guys or girls playing pick-up hoops on an outdoor hoop court in our county has the feel of spotting a rarely seen animal on an endangered creature list. Where once high school basketball teams cut players to get down to the team standard of 12 to 15 guys or girls, it’s more common now to see high school teams with single digit rosters.
But not soccer. Even in today’s technology-dominated world, kids can be spotted outside on soccer fields in almost every small town in the Catskills.
As the television marketing for this year’s World Cup proves, there is no turning back now. The world’s game has finally been discovered and added to the fabric of the multi-dimensional American quilt.