Unselfish Royals have green light to bunt
NEW YORK -- During Game 1 of the World Series at Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday night, the Royals had the tying run on second base with nobody out in the eighth inning. Lorenzo Cain, their best hitter, was at the plate. The sold-out crowd roared in anticipation.
In the fifth inning of Game 2, trailing the Mets by a run, the Royals had runners on first and second with nobody out. Leadoff man Alcides Escobar was at the plate. Again, the fans were in a frenzy.
In both cases, the batters opted for what has become an increasingly obsolete strategy, especially in the American League: a sacrifice bunt. Both were bunting on their own. Manager Ned Yost shrugged.
"I don't think I put four bunt signs on all year," he said. "We give our guys the freedom to play their style."
In other words, he doesn't care how the runner gets advanced, as long as it gets done.
That's in line with modern thinking. The use of a sacrifice bunt is at an historic low. In the AL each of the last three regular seasons, batters gave themselves up to move the runner an average of just 0.19 times per game. That's the fewest ever. As recently as 1990, the number was 0.30. In 1980, 0.40. In 1960, 0.54. In 1930, 1.05.
Or, to put it another way, the Royals had a total of 34 sacrifice bunts all season. The Athletics had only 14. Wee Willie Keeler had 42 all by himself to lead the league for the New York Highlanders in 1905.
There are two obvious reasons for the trend.
The first was the introduction of the designated hitter rule in 1973. Until then, the leagues were fairly even in the frequency of bunting. But in 1972, the AL average was 0.42 times per game. The next year, with the DH, it dropped to 0.30.
The other is the rise of advanced analytics. One of the underlying tenets of sabermetrics is that outs are precious. Each team has only 27 of them, and it's usually not wise to give one away. As a result, teams rarely play for one run anymore. They tend to swing for the fences and try to score in bunches. Crooked numbers, the managers like to call such rallies. Strikeouts are more accepted.
Despite all that, and regardless of what the statistics say, Yost said he still believes in small-ball staples.
"I'm a little bit old school. I still like bunting. I still like hitting and running. I still like stealing bases. Because we're not a power-laden team," he said during Thursday's workout day at Citi Field. "We kind of trailed off some of that a little bit this year because we were hitting home runs. And our offense had gotten better than it has been in the past. But I still think it's a useful tool at times.
"I used to use it a lot more. Then I found out my guys have a different style of play that they like to play. So I wouldn't put bunts on, and they'd do it. It was a style they liked. They started getting into that winning mindset -- 'What do I need to do to help my team be successful?' And they took it on themselves. So I've just about gotten away from putting on bunts all year long because they know when to do it and when they're comfortable doing it."
Yost conceded that, without having a DH for the two or three games in New York, he might be inclined to bunt more, especially with his pitchers. "[The approach] can change a little bit, especially when you're facing tough pitching," he said.
Still, the manager is well aware that the two attempts at turning back the clock that have been attempted by his team so far in the Fall Classic haven't worked out very well.
Cain poked at a high pitch and then fouled off the second pitch he saw before striking out swinging. The Royals were unable to score. Escobar fouled off two offerings attempting to bunt.
As seems to be the case this October, it all worked out for Kansas City, anyway. In Game 1, Alex Gordon got Escobar off the hook with a game-tying homer off Mets closer Jeurys Familia with one out in the ninth, and the Royals went on to win in 14 innings. And Escobar, swinging away with two strikes in Game 2, singled up the middle to tie the score. The Royals went on to string together three straight two-out singles to take control.
So as the World Series resumes with Game 3 on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX, 8 p.m. ET game time), when it comes to bunting we're probably talking more about the red, white and blue decorations that adorn the Citi Field facades than the ancient art of giving yourself up to advance the runner.