In the early eras of baseball, the home run was not held in the esteem that it is today. Players were encouraged to bunt, steal, and hit and run—techniques considered to require more skill than hitting a ball 400 feet. Often called a forgotten art today, bunting is still an important technical skill in baseball, especially in high school baseball. Every well-coached team employs it frequently. Bunting can be used not only to advance base runners but also to surprise an opponent or to get runners on base against an extremely tough pitcher. Proper instruction in bunting is important because this skill, unlike regular batting, should be executed with little individual deviation in technique.
When bunting, players must get their bodies into a position that will allow them both to see the ball well and to place it where they want to on the field. When called on to bunt, players can assume two body positions, or stances:
If a bunt is called for, after receiving the sign from the coach, the batter should assume his normal position in the batter’s box. After the pitcher has taken the sign from the catcher and comes to a ready position on the rubber, the batter should immediately shift into the bunting position. The batter moves his front foot back in the batter’s box and moves his rear foot forward, thereby squaring his feet and legs to the pitcher as shown in figure 3.11. If the batter moves the front foot first, he may step on or outside the batter’s box line. Any successful bunt hit from this position would be negated because according to the rules, a batter who hits the ball while a foot is out of the box is out and base runners have to return to the base occupied before the pitch. The batter should move the left foot first to avoid this violation.
After the feet are set, the batter bends both knees and bends forward at the waist, leaning slightly toward the plate and putting most of his weight on the foot closer to the plate. The bat should remain about letter high in the batter’s stance so that the batter can easily move it downward (this will be discussed in more detail shortly). The head shifts to a point close to the bat so that the batter can follow the path of the ball better.
As in the square-around position discussed earlier, the batter first assumes his stance, but when the pitcher begins his delivery, the batter pivots his body into bunting position without moving his feet. First, the batter pivots on the balls of both feet so that the feet point directly to the pitcher. As he does this, he bends both knees forward in the same direction and leans forward at the waist so that about 80 percent of his weight is on his front foot, as shown in figure 3.12. The hitter also lowers his head to a position that enables him to track the ball to the plate. From the waist up, the body is in the same position in both the square-around method and the pivot method of bunting.
Whichever method is used—the square around or the pivot—when the bunt sign is given, the player should move up slightly in the batter’s box. To avoid revealing his intentions, the batter should not make this move too obvious, but being closer to the pitcher will give him a better chance of keeping the bunt in fair territory.
Getting the body into a good position to bunt is important, but even more essential is positioning the hands and arms correctly. If the bat is not at the correct angle or the hands do not function properly, the bunt won’t do its intended job of advancing the runner.
When preparing to bunt in both the square-around method and the pivot method, the batter must hold the bat the same way. As the feet are moving into position in both methods, the batter’s top hand should slide up the bat so that it is near the brand trademark on wooden bats or, on aluminum bats, near the area where the bat begins to widen. The hand should pinch the bat loosely with the thumb on the top and the fingers on the bottom (see figure 3.13). Care should be taken to keep the fingers away from the side of the bat that will make contact with the ball. Players should bend the fingers at the first knuckle and place the fingernails against the bat rather than grab it as they would a can of soda pop in which they would expose the nails. The bottom hand can remain in the same position as it does in the regular batting stance, but the batter must not grip the bat so tightly that he constricts his muscles, which would make it harder for him to adjust to the location of the pitch.
For the square-around and pivot bunts, the batter should hold the bat at a 45-degree angle to the ground with the barrel at the top of the strike zone and the lower hand approximately 1 foot below (see figure 3.14). He should also hold the bat away from the body so that the sweet spot of the bat is in the strike zone area, extended away from the body and in front of the plate.
If the batter holds the bat over the top of the plate, he will create a bat angle that minimizes the chances for a successful bunt. This manner of holding the bat serves as a visual reminder to the batter that he should not bunt any pitch that is higher than the top of the barrel. Doing so would mean the bat is moving upwards, increasing the likelihood of the batter hitting the ball in the air. Also, any pitch above a barrel held at the top of the strike zone would be a ball. Batters, when preparing to bunt, should only go for strikes.
Deadening and Directing the Ball
In a properly executed bunt, the batter moves the bat slightly backward toward the catcher at the point of contact. This technique deadens the ball off the bat so that it will not travel as far into the field as it would if the batter swung the bat at the ball. In a sense, the bunter tries to catch the ball with the bat, much as a fielder would. If a fielder were to stab at a ball without first giving a little with the glove hand, he wouldn’t catch many balls. The ball would bounce off the glove onto the ground. Likewise, if the bunter doesn’t give with the top hand as the ball contacts the bat, the bunt will be hit too hard and it will reach the defense sooner, lessening the chance for a successful sacrifice.
The deadening effect, however, is only one part of effective bunting. The other is being able to direct the ball away from oncoming defenders into successful bunt zones on the field (see figure 3.15). The bottom hand determines the direction of the bunt. If the bottom hand never moves the bat left or right, most bunts would travel directly toward the pitcher, who would then be able to make an easy force play, a result that would definitely not be desirable.
The bunter applies this directional force simply by moving the bottom hand in much the same way that a person would steer a motorboat by moving the handle of the engine. If the batter needs to bunt the ball down the first-base line (assuming that he is right-handed), he extends his left arm forward so that the hitting area of the bat is aimed toward the first-base side of the field, as shown in figure 3.16. A left-handed batter would pull his right hand closer to his body to accomplish the same thing. When contact occurs, the angle of the bat will direct the ball toward first base. If the bunter needs to hit toward third base, he would pull the left hand closer to the body (if right-handed), again changing the angle of the bat. Note that the bunter does not move the top hand much while steering with the bottom hand.
By practicing and perfecting these techniques, batters can put the ball onto the parts of the field that are hardest to cover defensively, as shown in the diagram of bunt zones in figure 3.15, thus greatly increasing the chances of advancing a runner.
A common mistake that bunters make is bunting balls thrown outside the strike zone. Bunting poor pitches can considerably lessen the chances of a successful bunt. A pitch well off the inside of the plate is difficult to bunt because of the location of the bunter’s hands and bat. Pitches high in the strike zone would be above the bunter’s top hand, and bunters would find it extremely difficult to get the bat on the top half of the ball on this pitch. When bunters go after a high pitch they usually hit foul pop-ups or foul tips. Remember, the primary purpose of bunting is to advance runners. If the batter makes an out by popping up, runners don’t advance and meaningless outs are charged to the team.
Deciding When to Bunt
Consider the statistics: A runner on first base with no outs has a 43 percent chance of scoring; a runner on second base with one out, say one who has been advanced there by a sacrifice bunt, has only a 45 percent chance of scoring. So the sacrifice increases the chance by only 2 percent! A runner who successfully steals second base with no outs, however, has a 60 percent chance of scoring a run—decidedly better odds. This being noted, at times you may still want to bunt to advance the runner to the next base. When a game is tied in the late innings and good hitters are coming to the plate, you should probably bunt the runner to second to give your hitters a shot at driving the runner in. Another good time to bunt would be to squeeze a runner home from third with a weak hitter up in a must-score situation. These are just two of the many situations in which you might want to employ the bunt as opposed to the steal. A third option is to attempt a drag bunt instead of a sacrifice bunt to give the batter a better chance of being safe at first base.
You should also teach players to look for the bunt sign in late innings of close, low-scoring games because the tighter the game, the more pressure the defense feels. An anxious defender can mishandle a bunt in such situations.
The decision to bunt depends wholly on the team’s overall philosophy about advancing runners. The coach should thoroughly discuss this philosophy with players before the season begins so that they can sense the importance of bunting and buy into that way of thinking right away.
This is an excerpt from Coaching Baseball Technical and Tactical Skills.