A Conversation w/ Cameron about Bunting

Aug 28, 2009, 9:47 AM | Updated: Apr 4, 2011, 7:51 pm

by Mike Salk

Perhaps you caught Dave Cameron’s post this week about Michael Saunders bunting. He writes:

Last night, Michael Saunders laid down another perfect bunt, getting himself on base for the sixth time this season by bunting for a hit. He’s now tied for the team lead in bunt hits with Ichiro, and he’s only been on the roster for about a month. It’s not like he’s collecting these hits through sheer volume, either – he’s just been successful in reaching base six of the eight times he’s put a bunt down.

Saunders is a good bunter, there’s little doubt about that. He’s also fast and left-handed, which gives him an advantage in getting down the line before the fielder can get the ball to first base. Being able to drop one down for a hit is a nice weapon for him to have.

However, the M’s aren’t grooming him to be another Endy Chavez. He had 30 extra base hits and a .234 ISO in Triple-A when they called him up. There’s power in his bat, even if we haven’t seen it at the major league level yet. This is where my concern comes in. The whole point of having him up here right now is to attempt to evaluate his ability to help the team win next year as the club’s regular left fielder. He’s not going to help the M’s if he doesn’t drive the ball with some regularity, and he can’t do that if he’s bunting once every ten times he comes up to bat.

I’d like to see Wak tell him that he’s proven his point, showed he can get a bunt down, and that they can now trust him to handle himself in a situation if necessary. But, for the rest of the year, they’d like him to try to get the ball into the outfield, and he can feel free to put a ball or two in the stands if he wishes. He needs to learn how to work counts at the big league level, get himself into situations where he can expect a fastball and turn on it. Every time he lays down a bunt, it’s one less opportunity for him to learn how to hit big league pitching.

Being a good bunter is a nice bonus, but his value to the team will come through racking up doubles in the gap. More swings, less bunting please.

Interesting point, so I followed up with Saunders yesterday. Here’s what I found out:

He said that bunting is relatively new to his offensive arsenal. When he was in high school, he asked his coach about bunting and was told (not surprisingly), “absolutley not!” Makes sense too. Like most players who go on to big league careers, he was the best hitter on his team and likely one of the best hitters in his league. Any coach would want him to swing for the fences every time, especially using an aluminum bat!

But Michael can also run. And two years ago, when he was playing High-A ball for High Desert, the Mariners organization instituted a rule: every player that had some speed had to attempt to bunt for a hit once out of every 10 at bats. If they went 10 at bats without a bunt attempt, they had to try two out of the next 10!

Well, it turns out that he was pretty good at it. And now he sees it as a valuable tool. He likes to pull the ball with him up the first base line especially when:

a) there is a runner on first so the first baseman is back at the bag holding the runner; and

b) there is a lefty on the mound who might be tougher to hit and likely falls off to the third base side

Makes sense.

Furthermore, he says bunting is valuable as a way of staying out of slumps. Not only can he pick up some cheap hits, but he says it helps him refocus on the ball but watching it all the way into his bat.

Now, as for whether the organization needs to get a better sense of his hitting, he says the powers that be have been supportive of the bunting. Doesn’t make them right or wrong. Just that they have positively reinforced his behavior.

Dave responded to me via email last night, saying:

Hey Mike,

Thanks for following up on that. I’m not sure anything shows the disconnect in approach between teams like the A’s, who used to demand that their prospects walk in at least 10% of their at-bats in order to get promoted, and the old M’s regime, who demand that their prospects bunt in 10% of their at-bats.

Honestly, requiring a prospect to bunt once every 10 times up just because he has speed is unbelievably stupid. Yet another reason why those clowns got fired. I’ll touch on this on the blog tomorrow.

My response:

I’m 90% with you on the bunting thing. But I do like that he can bunt. Nothing drives me crazier than a major leaguer that can’t lay down a bunt. I guess I would say this:

Bunting is an important skill. There are times (men on 1st and 2nd, 0 outs, tie game late) when it is VITAL that one is executed properly. But because these guys are such good hjitters, no one ever lets them bunt in games. So, I want that skill learned.

But, teaching patience is much harder to do. And probably helps in more situations. I guess I would like to see players learn both.

And a response from Dave:

I’m not against the bunt. I agree, it’s a useful skill for some players to have, Saunders being one of them.

However, bunting in 10% of your at-bats in the minors? Bunting is one of those things that is more technique than anything else, and can be learned through non-game practice. You can’t learn how to recognize an 84 MPH slider in an 0-2 count in BP, or how to recognize a change-up away on a 2-0 count and not turn it over for an easy ground-out. These things have to be learned in game competition, and sacrificing 10% of your plate appearances to work on bunting is a waste of resources.

Plus, I’d argue that minor league players learn to value what is emphasized in their development years. Jeff Francoeur doesn’t care about walks or on base percentage because the Braves minor league coaches don’t care about those things, and due to that, his approach at the plate makes him a pretty large waste of talent. Emphasizing bunting is sending the wrong signal about what’s important to impressionable young kids. It’s the cherry on top of the sundae – once it starts getting treated like the actual desert, it’s a problem.

So, what do you think? Get into the debate!

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A Conversation w/ Cameron about Bunting