As far as the ordinary rules are concerned, the strikeout on a foul bunt is unusual. Unlike a swing and miss, a foul bunt involves contact, and unlike a foul tip into the glove, a foul bunt isn’t caught. Plus, as players are constantly reminding us these days, bunting is hard, far harder than people think. But baseball is unquestionably better for having this rule in place. Without it, in theory, an at-bat could stretch on forever. In theory, any at-bat could already stretch on forever, but there would be nothing stopping a player from perfecting the skill of the two-strike foul bunt. Plate appearances might go 15, 20, 25, 70 pitches. Or strikeouts would be put off until everyone walked. Without the two-strike foul-bunt rule, baseball could very well collapse. At the very least, it would totally suck to watch.
I know about the two-strike foul-bunt rule. You know about the two-strike foul-bunt rule. It’s one of those rules baseball fans know before they turn 12. The question is, what does a two-strike foul bunt look like? That seems like a weird thing to ask, but after Wednesday’s game between the Brewers and Reds, this is suddenly in the news, and I want to know what all of you think.
It’s the perfect kind of baseball controversy — it’s controversial, but in the end, the call didn’t make that much of a difference. The judgment call in question benefited the Reds, at the Brewers’ expense. The Brewers ultimately won the game in extra innings. So this is kind of academic. Michael Lorenzen batted with two on in the bottom of the sixth.
Lorenzen spent his time trying to bunt. He failed his way into a two-strike count, when the moment took place. Lorenzen squared. Then Lorenzen arguably pulled back. The ball hit the bat and went foul. After some umpire discussion, Lorenzen was allowed to keep batting. Craig Counsell protested, to no avail. That’s the way most protests work.
You’ve probably heard about what happened. If Lorenzen struck out on the very next pitch, it would’ve all been lost and forgotten. Lorenzen, though, did not strike out on the very next pitch. Instead, on the very next pitch, he drilled his fourth home run of the season, and his third against Milwaukee alone. That made the call look all the worse in retrospect. Which isn’t entirely fair to the call, but at least it means I can write this post.
I want to know what you see here. You, the person reading this article. There’s a poll at the bottom, asking whether you see a foul ball or a foul bunt. In the judgment of the umpires, obviously, Lorenzen hit a foul ball. In the judgment of the Brewers, Lorenzen hit a foul bunt. It wound up indirectly — but kind of directly — making a three-run difference in the score. Before the poll, I’m just going to present a bunch more details. These might inform both sides of the conversation.
As it happens, earlier in the same at-bat, Lorenzen squared around and then twisted away from an inside pitch:
Here’s a screenshot of Lorenzen getting out of the way:
And here’s a screenshot of the controversial play. You might notice certain similarities, and differences.
In both cases, you can see how little time Lorenzen had to react. Never forget that the ball gets on the hitter in a damn hurry. In both cases, the bat is still kind of out there, but then, when Lorenzen twisted away, he had more of a turn in his shoulders. Down below, Lorenzen is more facing forward. Had Lorenzen fouled the ball in the first instance, it would’ve been easier to say it was an accident. When Lorenzen actually made contact with two strikes, he seemed to be more squared. An alternate view could be helpful:
I can bombard you with side angles. Here’s one!
After Lorenzen made contact, and after Lorenzen was allowed to stay in the box, the Brewers TV broadcast used words like “absurd,” “ridiculous,” “comical,” “embarrassing,” and “joke.” The Reds TV broadcast didn’t editorialize so much, but among the sentences used were “what am I missing here?” and “Counsell’s livid, and I don’t blame him.” In the immediate aftermath, both broadcast crews assumed the foul-bunt strikeout. It looked like a foul-bunt strikeout. Neither broadcast understood right away why Lorenzen wasn’t out. And this wasn’t just a home-plate umpire decision — the whole crew got together, and they reached the same conclusion.
From the perspective of the umpires, it’s all about intent. An excerpt:
Crew chief Bill Welke explained the situation after the game.
“It was a very unusual play,” Welke said. “Rule 5.09 says a batter is out when he bunts foul on [the] third strike. But now we have to go to, ‘What is the definition of a bunt?’ So if we go to the definitions in the rulebook, page 141, a bunt is a batted ball not swung at, but intentionally met with the bat and tapped slowly within the infield. He was in full retreat. It was not an intentionally met non-swinging attempt. He was not attempting to hit that. Therefore if he’s not bunting, it just becomes a foul ball.”
You can read the rules for yourself if you want. Here’s an excerpt from — I’ll be damned, page 141:
A BUNT is a batted ball not swung at, but intentionally met with the bat and tapped slowly within the infield.
According to the umpires, it was a foul ball in much the same way as this was a foul ball:
Lorenzen, in their judgment, was pulling back, and not trying to bunt the ball in play, as soon as he recognized where it was headed. At that point, it didn’t matter how he was holding the bat itself, or whether he’d shown bunt earlier on. Players pull back after showing bunt all the time. Lorenzen did it just moments earlier. A bunt can be rescinded mid-pitch. Still, even after the game, and even after the Brewers won, Counsell still thought Lorenzen had bunted foul. He thought Lorenzen was still sufficiently square. Sometimes players can mean to bunt those pitches:
And, on top of that, less than two months ago, this is how Chase Anderson once struck out:
Anderson was called out for that. He didn’t even try to stay in the box. But, visually, Anderson and Lorenzen don’t look so different. Now, granted, their behavior might matter here, in that it might reveal the intent. By walking away, Anderson made it look like he’d been trying to bunt. By staying put, Lorenzen made it look like he’d been trying to pull the bat back. Maybe that’s all the umpires needed to see. But, side by side, Anderson and Lorenzen appeared to make similar attempts. One was called a foul bunt. One was called a foul ball. The rule book leaves room for interpretation, and it’s not quite always black and white.
I reached out to former big-league umpire Dale Scott, and while on the one hand he supported the standing interpretation, he also admitted that it could’ve been seen the other way. And so we’ve come to this, a FanGraphs community poll. This, again, is the play we’ve been talking about:
So, now that we’ve gone over the circumstances, what do you see? I honestly don’t know on which side the majority of you are going to fall, which is entirely what makes this so fun.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.