When Should You Be Allowed to Bunt?

Quick answer: whenever you feel like it. Longer answer: to follow.

You’ve already had the entire weekend to forget about last week, and over the weekend, there was an incident involving Carlos Gomez and Gerrit Cole that cleared the benches and that will lead to suspensions. So you’re forgiven if you don’t remember much from Friday, but from Friday, I’d like to present to you a sequence of events. Prior to the Gomez sportsmanship incident, there was a sportsmanship incident in a game between the A’s and the Astros with Jed Lowrie and Bo Porter right in the middle.

Bottom of the first inning:

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Note the score, note the shift, note the maneuver. Jed Lowrie bunted and got thrown out. The next time Lowrie came to the plate:

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And, in between the half-innings:

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During a seven-run first inning, Jed Lowrie tried to bunt for a hit against the shift. The next time Lowrie batted, he got thrown at by a first-pitch fastball. Lowrie didn’t actually get hit and shortly thereafter he flew out, but as the Astros ran off the field Lowrie engaged Jose Altuve and then got yelled at by an angry Bo Porter. Both pitchers were warned, but the game finished with no further incident. By the time the media got to ask questions, there were some coolers heads, and it seemed like the matter had been dealt with.

Let’s acknowledge two things right away:

(1) As outsiders, we don’t have a great understanding of the unwritten rules, and of the ways in which they’re enforced. These are in-baseball issues, a lot of the time, and in-baseball issues sometimes don’t make a lot of sense, the same way friend-circle drama sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense.

(2) The Astros were embarrassed and frustrated and when you’re feeling down, it’s really easy to be ticked off by anything. You’re practically looking for reasons to hate the world, and Lowrie poked at the Astros when they were already snarling.

Now then, what to make of this? Who was in the right? Interestingly, the Astros broadcast was annoyed by Lowrie immediately. Maybe that’s less interesting, since the Astros broadcast is biased, but they took no time in calling out Lowrie for a cheap maneuver. They agreed with throwing at him. Actually interestingly, the A’s broadcast didn’t exactly come to Lowrie’s defense. They didn’t pile on, like the Astros broadcasters did, but they acknowledged that the targeted fastball was easy to see coming, and they basically left it up to the audience to decide whether or not Lowrie’s attempt was justifiable. Clearly, they got why the Astros were annoyed.

Lowrie’s defense is a fine one — it was the first inning. I think, as fans, we usually fall on the side opposed to the unwritten rules, because the unwritten rules are irrational, but Lowrie tried to bunt when the A’s were up by seven, not seventy. The Astros had another 24 outs, and the A’s win expectancy was about 97%, not 100%. Of course, when the A’s are beating the Astros by seven, the game’s basically over, no matter how early it is. The A’s are a really good Major League Baseball team and the Astros are a really good Pacific Coast League baseball team. But the first inning is the first inning, and it seems mighty early to give up.

Somewhat implied is also the misconception that bunting leads to an automatic, easy hit. Lowrie, after all, was thrown out on the play. Bunting isn’t easy, and if bunting against the shift always yielded simple singles, we’d see it attempted a lot more often than we do. It stands to reason the Astros wouldn’t have gotten in Lowrie’s face had he swung away and ripped a single. They weren’t opposed to Lowrie trying — they were opposed to how Lowrie tried, even though it didn’t swing the odds very much. This gets into the familiar oddness of the running-up-the-score conversation.

After thinking and talking this through, it seems the Astros’ complaint is less about Lowrie resorting to bunting, and more about Lowrie resorting to strategy. Bunting is a baseball tactic, just like attempting a steal is a baseball tactic, and teams getting blown out don’t like when the other team steals. It seems like the unwritten rule is that, when the score is lopsided enough, the teams are expected to play straight-up. There’s no specific margin beyond which a score is officially lopsided, but teams will arrive at a quiet understanding.

Already, one is free to disagree with that. But the thing in this specific instance is also that the Astros were playing a shifted defensive infield. Shifting your infield isn’t playing straight-up baseball. That’s employing a strategic maneuver, and it makes especially little sense for there to be situations in which it’s okay for only one of the two teams to employ what you might consider trickery. Shifting is still not the usual way of things, and it’s used to improve your odds of recording an out. Bunting is a counter-maneuver against the shift. The Astros, basically, started it, by playing something other than ordinary, straight-up baseball. They demonstrated that strategy was still in play, so Lowrie tried something strategic, and it didn’t even work. Had Lowrie bunted against a regular infield, it would’ve been a little different, but had there been a regular infield, Lowrie wouldn’t have bunted in the first place, so you could say the Astros have themselves to blame. There can never be a situation in which it’s okay to have an effort imbalance. However much a team’s trying to come back, the other team should be able to try that hard to stay on top. Who could reasonably disagree with that?

Also, again, it was the bottom of the first inning, and baseball games last more than one inning. As it happened, the Astros subsequently tied a season-high with ten hits. They never got close, but they did get closer, and while what happened after the fact doesn’t mean much with regard to the first inning, the game wasn’t close to over.

I think we can agree there are certain things that just don’t feel right. If you’re stealing bases up by ten in the eighth inning, it makes sense why that would be upsetting, even if it’s all still just baseball and anything’s possible before the last out. You can rationally argue against most unwritten rules. But even if you grant that there can and will be certain unwritten rules, it’s hard to see how Lowrie was completely in the wrong considering the Astros shifted him first. What the Astros conveyed was, “we’re putting a little extra thought into trying to get you out.” So how Lowrie responded was, “I’m putting a little extra thought into trying to not get out.” It’s okay that the Astros were upset, but they should’ve just been upset at themselves. Lowrie hardly did anything extraordinary.

It’s all already blown over. These things usually do that, right quick. Which is what you’d expect of conflicts that don’t make rational sense even five or ten minutes after the fact. This probably isn’t the last time we’ll see something like this, given the popularity of shifting. But the next time I understand the perspective of the shifters will be the first time.

We hoped you liked reading When Should You Be Allowed to Bunt? by Jeff Sullivan!

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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.

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Jon L.
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Jon L.

Nailed it.

Brian McCann
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Brian McCann

No argument here.