For all of the quirks and oddities of 2020, maybe we should’ve seen one coming: how much (and how well) the Orioles bunt. The Orioles did not have a great offense last season, but by the second half, they did grow into an above average power-hitting team. They ran quite a bit, to augment the fact that they hardly walked, and bunted more than all but one American League team. Meanwhile, bunting continued to plummet across baseball as teams prioritized three true outcomes, with sacrifices in particular reaching an all-time low league-wide.
By and large, those trends have only proliferated in 2020. Teams are sacrificing at half the rate they did last year, with the designated hitter now present in both leagues. The Orioles are simply the exception. They bunt more than anyone. They bunt when they’re ahead, when they’re behind and when the score is tied. They have players who bunt more than entire teams.
At no point has their dominance in this department been more apparent than in Tuesday’s 9-5 win over the Mets at Camden Yards. Feasting off New York pitching for their largest offensive output in nearly three weeks, Baltimore used bunts to spark and set up half of those runs, including key rallies in the first, second and sixth innings. Homers from Renato Núñez (two) and Anthony Santander, and Pat Valaika’s four hits did the rest, hijacking many of the highlights from Baltimore’s second straight win.
“That’s what we do when we’re at our best,” said Núñez, who crushed a three-run shot in the first and added a solo shot in the seventh. “We bunt, we move runners and then we bring them in.”
Behind those blasts were rallies begun and made better by bunts. Two came from Cedric Mullins, who bunt-singled, scored and sacrificed the Orioles toward three runs over the first two innings. Mullins’ bunt hit off Ariel Jurado in the first was his seventh of the season -- more than every other Major League team combined. The Orioles have 12 bunt hits total, more than twice as many as the Phillies and Rangers -- the next closest teams. Six teams have none.
“It’s personnel driven,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I think the bunt is appropriate at the right time with the right people. With the bottom of our order, we’re looking to tack on runs and get guys on base for Tony, Núñez and [José] Iglesias in the middle.”
Mullins is now tied with teammate Hanser Alberto for second in the AL with three sacrifice bunts; Baltimore leads with 13 sacrifices as a team. The Padres have 10. Nobody else entered play on Tuesday with more than seven. The sacrifice numbers are especially interesting because they come in a competitive environment unlike any previously in baseball history -- with the universal DH but also new rules governing extra-inning games. The Orioles have laid down sacrifices in half of their six extra-inning contests.
How novel is seeing a team bunt like the Orioles do in 2020? Watching them live for the first time since 2018, the Mets' broadcasters were enamored by Baltimore’s intent and execution when squaring up on Tuesday. Veteran play-by-play man Gary Cohen called Mullins the best bunter since long-time Marlins speedster Juan Pierre, who retired in 2013. When Andrew Velazquez sacrificed ahead of Santander’s two-run homer in the sixth, Cohen sounded incredulous.
“You just don’t see that anymore,” Cohen gasped on the air. He also called Mullins’ bunting ability “amazing.”
“Whenever Cedric bunts the ball, it’s going to be bang-bang at worst at first base, because he’s such a good bunter and he gets down the line so well,” Hyde said.
Of course, those types of throwback fundamentals worked in large part because the Orioles executed behind them. Seven of the first 11 Orioles registered hits off the righty Jurado, whom they tagged for five runs in four innings in his Mets debut. They then tagged rookie righty Franklyn Kilone for four more to support starter Asher Wojciechowski and winning pitcher Thomas Eshelman, after the Mets rallied to tie things in the sixth. Combined, it did well to boost an offense that ranked among the AL’s best early on but has drifted back into the pack in recent weeks.
"We’ve been turning things around,” Núñez said. “I feel like we’re going to keep playing like that."