#buntingisawful

My anger had been building all spring. Game after game I watched college baseball players square around and perform the most boring act a batter can: the sacrifice bunt.

For months, it didn’t bother me much. I understood the game had changed with the introduction of BBCOR bats, which took a lot of pop out of college hitter’s swings. Coaches were working harder to manufacture runs. I could live with this for three hours a few times a week.

Still, it was, at times, frustrating. I watched an Ohio State game on the Big Ten Network and saw even Greg Beals, the Buckeyes coach and former Ball State coach I had covered the previous two years, resort to bunting. I found it difficult to believe. While I had covered him, his teams had rarely bunted. I looked up how often Ohio State had sacrificed this year and saw, in mid-April, it already had more sacrifice bunts as Ball State did all of last year. I told myself it was a new team, a new park, a new conference. But even the former players I talked to couldn’t believe Beals was bunting.

The season went on and the bunting epidemic continued. I was frustrated when Harold Martinez, Miami’s cleanup hitter was asked to sacrifice in a game at North Carolina. I watched Clemson hopelessly flail at bunts in its first game of the ACC Tournament. I was reaching my breaking point.

And then, the next day, it happened. North Carolina State was facing Georgia Tech in both team’s second game of the ACC Tournament. The game was tied at one in the third inning, with Jed Bradley, the Yellow Jackets’ ace, on the mound. He was scuffling a bit and had allowed the first two batters of the inning to reach base. This brought Andrew Ciencin, the Wolfpack’s three-hole hitter, to the plate.

He was asked to bunt.

I lost my mind. I had lost where the Wolfpack were in their lineup and incorrectly identified Ciencin as Pratt Maynard, the team’s best hitter, and was incredulous he would be asked to give himself up. I took to Twitter and vented my frustration, including the hashtag #buntingisawful, which has followed me ever since. As I was alerted to the fact it was Ciencin who had bunted, it did nothing to calm me down. Here was the senior captain who was trusted enough to hit third in the lineup, being told to sacrifice.

The bunt did not work, as they so often don’t. Bradley took his free out and proceeded to strike out the next two hitters. Georgia Tech went on to win the game in 15 innings.

That was the bunt that pushed me over the cliff. I couldn’t watch any more coaches ask their best hitters to sacrifice without getting fired up about it. The hashtag began to take on a life of its own.

It got so bad (good?) that in one NCAA Tournament game when I was watching an inning of a North Carolina game from the stands instead of the press box and a bunt happened without my inflamed tweets following it, I was told other press members wondered what had happened to me. Throughout the College World Series people tweeted at me when bunts happened, sometimes defending a coach’s decision, other times appearing as enraged as I had ever been by a sacrifice bunt.

It has become a tic. I see a sacrifice bunt; I reach for my BlackBerry or my laptop to type #buntingisawful.

***

I wasn’t always this way. Though I was raised in Cleveland in the 1990s in an environment that was about as American League as they get, I understand there are occasionally times to bunt. I used to despise the hit-and-run much more than the sacrifice. The images of a strike-‘em-out-throw-‘em-out double play are much starker than a sacrifice bunt.

As a 12-year old I was good at bunting. It was a reliable way for me to make contact with the ball. I appreciated that.

Still, Earl Waver baseball is what I grew up with and what I want to play.

***

The newly-acquired hatred of the sacrifice isn’t really about it being bad strategy. I know the saber stats that show you decrease your chances of scoring when you sacrifice and I believe them. But as advocates of the bunt have pointed out to me, in college the lack of quality defense often helps to make the bunt a better play. If this year’s CWS taught us anything, it was that.

*Also, quit picking against South Carolina.

No, this is about something a little deeper. This is about coaches pulling the bat out of the hands of their best hitters. It’s one thing to ask Keith Werman and his .026 ISO to bunt. It’s something else entirely to ask the SEC Player of the Year to sacrifice, as Kevin O’Sullivan did in the third game of the Gainesville Super Regional. The Gators won the game and the series when Preston Tucker hit a three-run home run following Mike Zunino’s bunt, but realistically he should have been walked to load the bases anyway.

No Major League manager would ask an MVP candidate to bunt with the season on the line. In fact, that might be a fire-able offense. I know college and the majors aren’t especially comparable, but how is taking the bat away from your best hitter a good idea at any level of baseball?

The sacrifice just seems like an awful idea. You only get 27 outs in a baseball game. It’s difficult for me to comprehend why a manager would willingly give so many away so cavalierly.

***

Over the last month, the tic has begun to subside. I knew this would happen. Major League managers, especially American League ones, don’t call for many sacrifices. Whether this is because they abide by the sabermetric stats that show the folly of the sacrifice or because so many of their players simply are incapable of laying a bunt down doesn’t matter.

I covered the Indians-White Sox series last weekend. On Sunday, there were three sacrifice bunts in the game’s first six innings. Alexi Ramirez, the game’s second hitter, was asked to advance Juan Pierre from second to third with a sacrifice. I sighed and sent a half-hearted tweet condemning the move. Two bunts and an intentional walk later, I was almost ready to admit defeat.

I still despise the sacrifice. I still can’t stand over-managing. But I think it’s time to put the vitriol away. Baseball is a wonderful game, full of beauty and surprise. It is about Asdrubal Cabrera’s defense and Eric Hosmer’s swing. The embarrassment of admitting such a trivial play causes me such consternation isn’t worth it. I don’t want to explain my groans when a hitter squares around anymore.

Bunting is still awful, but I’m sick of letting the sacrifice bunt come between me and my love for the game.

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