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To bunt or not to bunt? There is no question

Examining the merits of bunting in less time than it takes to get thrown out at first.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The origins of bunting are almost entirely shrouded in legend and mystery, all documented evidence having been tightly locked away in the same vaults that contain proof concerning the existence of UFO's, the truth about the moon landing, and the exact location of Jimmy Hoffa's body. If we compile these basic facts up front, and avoid doing any actual research, we can reasonably conclude that bunting was invented by the alien-invaded body of Jimmy Hoffa, who dreamed up the idea based on the lack of gravity surrounding the moon. (In an atmosphere where gravity is no longer an issue, a bunted baseball is likely to travel far enough to count as a home run.)

However, despite the government's best efforts to hide the facts, baseball history does give us some insights as to the origins of the bunt. The basic idea behind the bunt existed even before the invention of baseball, in the days when stuffy Englishmen roamed the earth, freely playing a game call "cricket" without the slightest fear of being laughed at. In cricket, a batsman might swing away, or he might take his chances at "blocking," or "bunting" (or "wussing out"). Of course, in cricket, batsman were allowed to wield a bat roughly the width and length of an airplane wing, and so "blocking," or "bunting" (or "waving the white flag"), had a higher percentage of being successful.

Even so, it can be argued that the practice of "blocking," or "bunting" (or "admitting a gender identity crisis") eventually led to the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), or "The War of Independence" (or "The War Against Giving Up Free Outs"). However, even though America won the war, the practice of bunting resurfaced quite quickly in the early history of baseball.

Wikipedia, which is seemingly maintained and updated daily by brain-damaged ferrets, confidently states that the modern bunt was invented by Dickey Pearce (1836-1908), a shortstop with a monstrous mustache who played in the late 19th century (his mustache only retired as recently as 2003). It should be noted immediately, though, that not only did Pearce have an unusually British-like attachment to afternoon tea, he also played in an era where a "fair ball" was defined as any ball that initially landed in fair territory, even if it later rolled foul. (I only wish I was making this last part up.) Obviously, then, Pearce had a slightly larger bunting advantage than today's modern player, in that he had approximately 400% more fielding area in which to safely place his bunts. (His favorite place to land a bunt was in an opposing player's tea cup.)

Pearce's frequent bunts led others to call this his "tricky hit," and this in turn led directly to the founding of the National League (Motto: "Will Bunt for Food").

How well did Pearce perform? I attempted to look up his stats on Baseball-Reference, which do actually exist, but unfortunately the all of their web servers crashed while attempting to calculate and load Pearce's ground-ball percentage. This leads us to several criticisms of bunting: first, it encourages mustaches; second, it's "tricky"; third, it results in the establishment of weaker leagues that are masochistic enough to let pitchers bat; fourth, it almost guarantees a ball in play that lands directly on the infield ground, where there are approximately seventeen million gleeful fielders ready to snap it up and throw the batter out.

Why would a batter willingly risk giving up an easy out? Conventional baseball wisdom would cite several reasons: perhaps there is a runner on first base whom the batter wishes to give a .00037% chance of advancing into scoring position; perhaps the batter hopes to catch the defense off guard by putting the baseball on the ground immediately within arm's reach; perhaps there is a runner on third and the manager feels that his best strategy is to employ a technique so foolish that they went right ahead and included the word "suicide" in its description; or perhaps the batter simply has a mustache that just won't quit.

With the surge in popularity of Sabermetrics (2011-2012), the practice of bunting has come under heavy fire. Scores and scores of articles have been written by men in white coats who own far too many calculators, demonstrating with complex formulae and hard-to-decipher graphs that, beyond all debate and reasonable doubt, Dickey Pearce's mustache was too sexy for his face. (And also that bunting doesn't really increase a team's win expectancy enough to warrant taking the risk.)

And yet the bunting continues. Why? Because it is part of the "Old School Manager's Baseball Playbook," right alongside the instructions to always pinch-hit a lefty against a right-handed pitcher, even if the pitcher in question is Rollie Fingers and the batter being pulled is Hank Aaron.

Another reason why bunting is still a big part of baseball is because, as often as it fails and gives the opposing team a "free out," it does actually work sometimes, and it has - from time to time - proved to be the difference between winning and losing a game. Unfortunately, this fuels the results-oriented thinking that plagues all of us at some point in our lives. If a plan succeeds, no matter how ill-conceived it may have been, it's difficult for otherwise-rational human beings to shake the notion that it was a good idea from the start, because it worked in that specific instance. (This does not apply to Rod Allen, for whom every bunt is perceived as "a good idea," because [a] Rod Allen drank a lot of tea during his time in Japan, and [b] Rod Allen also has a mustache.)

But results-oriented thinking is flawed at the core. Bad ideas sometimes yield good results, because life is unpredictable and luck is always a factor. But this doesn't mean that we should regularly take risks based on proven bad ideas, just because it worked "that one time." For instance, the math proves that putting money in a slot machine is a sure-fire way to lose every cent over long-term play, even if you get lucky once or twice and hit a winning combination. To prove the point (and also to pad my word-count), I have created an online gambling account and will now proceed to bet my entire paycheck on five spins of the "Lucky Seven's" wheel.

Actually, I just hit the diamond-line jackpot on the first spin, and am now filthy rich beyond my wildest dreams.

So as I was saying, results-oriented thinking is the key to a happy and prosperous life, and managers should call for the bunt at every conceivable opportunity.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go buy a pallet-load of mustache wax.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Have you ever bunted in a situation that didn't involve Earl Grey tea? How ashamed were you?
  2. How much is the National League to blame for the existence of Justin Bieber? Explain.
  3. Weren't late 19th-century mustaches awesome? Provide examples.
  4. I just lost all that slot machine money at the Blackjack table - can I borrow $20?
  5. You think bunting is a good idea, don't you? Show us your Barbra Streisand CD collection.

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