'Still the best': Reds learn from bunting expert Brett Butler

February 28th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Mark Sheldon’s Reds Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Bunting appears to be back in fashion, and former Major League outfielder and bunting expert wanted to be part of it.

For the second straight spring, the Reds called on Butler to show their players how bunting is properly done. If you're going to do it, why not learn from the best? Butler had 245 bunt hits and 147 sacrifices over his 17-season career from 1981-97.

“It was awesome. I really appreciate them bringing him back in," center fielder said.

On a small practice field tucked between the indoor batting cages and a weightlifting tent at the team complex, the 66-year-old Butler was there ready to teach. Players -- both Major and Minor Leaguers -- came up one at a time for a tutorial.

“I’ve been out of the game a while. To come back and see these kids do it, it warms my heart," Butler said.

TJ Friedl working on bunting with Brett Butler

As a Reds coach fed balls into a pitching machine, players laid down bunts. Some were good, and others? Not so much.

“What happened? You were running. See it on the ground,” Butler told one Minor Leaguer.

After a few poor bunts, Butler paused and grabbed the player's bat and stepped up himself. As the machine fired pitches, the left-handed Butler dropped one perfect bunt after another while demonstrating his technique.

“He’s [66] years old and still the best bunter in the big leagues," one Reds executive said.

When players dropped good bunts, Butler was effusive with praise.

“There it is, there it is! See the difference?” Butler said to prospect Jay Allen II.

During their 82-win surprise season in 2023, the Reds played an exciting style of baseball that emphasized aggressive baserunning and advancing runners.

Bunting was not part of manager David Bell's preferred strategy between 2019-22. Players like Nick Castellanos, Joey Votto and Mike Moustakas were power hitters and not in the lineup to bunt. In 2020, the Reds did not attempt a sacrifice bunt. In '22, there were 12 sacrifices and eight bunt hits.

"We didn’t have guys that … it just wasn’t really part of their game," Bell said. "To force that, even if traditionally it was the spot to do things like that, they didn’t really know how to do it. It had never been part of their game for their career.”

“I think a big part of bunting and bunting in a game is being OK with failure,” Friedl said. “I know a lot of guys in the past would bunt in a game and bunt it foul. They shut it down instead of saying, ‘OK, I failed one time. Let me go back and try it again.’ The only way to get better at something is to continue to work on it and practice it.”

Last season, the Reds transformed into a highly athletic club filled with speedsters. Friedl, Elly De La Cruz, Matt McLain, Spencer Steer and others were given the freedom to use their speed and run. In Friedl's case, he was also among those empowered to bunt.

In 2023, the Reds had 19 successful sacrifices.

"That feeds into our identity. Putting that down, making them make a play on us is our identity," Friedl said.

Friedl was one of the Reds who particularly gravitated to Butler during last year's session, and he saw the results with a Major League-leading 17 bunt hits. Friedl, who is left-handed like Butler, often featured the bunt going back to his college days, but he was able to take his skills to another level last season.

Friedl asked Butler not only about his technique, but also about his strategy. When is the best time to bunt? What count? Any certain pitches?

“Last year, when I got five or six bunt hits and the scouting report came out, it was, ‘Hey, he’s the bunter. Eyes on him.’ Then it was more so a game of surprise," Friedl said. "Now they know I’m going to bunt. They don’t know when.”

By the early 2000s with the rise of analytics, bunting went out of vogue, as the power game was embraced. Teams didn't like giving away outs with sacrifices and didn't see as much value in bunt singles.

“For me, I was confused," said Butler, who had 42 bunt hits for the Dodgers in 1992. "Why? Why are we going to [bat] .250-.260 with 10-15 home runs and 65 RBIs? Where is the leadoff, setting up and doing that stuff? Because that only adds to it, it doesn’t take away. I was delighted when it came back.”