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The art of the bunt: The baseball debate that keeps on giving

The war on bunting is over, or so declared a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. The play that is the bane of existence for statistically-minded baseball people is on the serious decline in Major League Baseball this year.

According to numbers used by The Wall Street Journal from Stats, LLC, bunting is trending out of existence. Batters (excluding pitchers) are bunting an average of once every nine games this season. In 2004 they were bunting once every 4.5 games.

This excites the sabermetric crowd which has rallied against the bunt, along with stolen bases and intentional walks. They see the bunt as a wasted at-bat. Trading second base for an out doesn’t increase the odds of scoring the run, the numbers say.

The trend isn’t as pronounced for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons, although the Herd’s 33 successful sac bunts last year ranked as the fifth fewest in the club’s modern era. The team high was 57 in 2010 with club laying down 50 sac bunts in 2013 and 2001. The lowest total was 17 back in 1987.

While the death of the bunt has long been predicted, the bunt isn’t quite dead yet.

“What the sabermetrics say it’s not a good idea?” Buffalo Bisons manager Gary Allenson said. “There’s a lot of times that a guy’s on first with nobody out and never gets into scoring position. Or gets into scoring position finally with two outs and you get one crack at it instead of two. I don’t know who these sabermetric guys are but it depends on who the guys are coming up.”

Allenson, who played seven Major League seasons including six with the Boston Red Sox from 1979-1984, said he prefers utilizing the sacrifice bunt late in a game. Here’s the situation he laid out using Dalton Pompey and Andy Burns:

“If it’s late in the game and Pompey comes up to the plate and you need to get a guy in scoring position and Burns is swinging a hot bat and driving in runs as the No. 3 guy, we’re going to take an out to get a guy in scoring position,” Allenson said.

For his part, Pompey is a fan of the bunt and doesn’t hesitate to use it. The outfielder typically hits in the leadoff spot for the Bisons and was batting .267 for the Herd this season before a bruise he suffered attempting to make a defensive play in Monday’s game at Coca-Cola Field put him on day-to-day status.

“I feel like a lot of guys don’t like to bunt because they feel it’s a wasted at-bat if they get out,” Pompey said. “And I feel like sometimes for me, I’d rather trust my legs more than swinging the bat sometimes depending on how I feel. I never feel a bunt is a wasted at-bat. Obviously I feel like there’s an opportunity – that’s why I’ll do it. For a lot of speed guys it just helps keep you out of a long slump. It helps bring the infield in and it changes up a lot of things other than the actual bunt itself.”

Alexi Casilla leads the Herd with four successful sacrifices this season, including one he dropped in the third inning of Tuesday's 5-1 win over Columbus at Coca-Cola Field.

“The bunt has been part of the game since baseball started,” Casilla said, adding “No it’s not easy. If you’re going to bunt, if you let your barrel wait back you’re going to hit a fly ball or it’s going to be foul. So if you keep your barrel in front over the plate, you’re going to be OK.”

Allenson, who credited his ability to put down a sac bunt as earning him an MLB catching job at the start of his career, noted there’s more to the art of bunting than just where the barrel of the bat is.

“You know what I was taught as kid growing up that when you bunt to sacrifice, you need to square around,” Allenson said, standing up in his office to demonstrate. “So in other words, I’m back in my stance where I hit, but when I’ve got the sacrifice and the pitcher starts to the plate, I move up, turn around and I get the bat angle.

“Guys don’t do that anymore. They pivot. But when you move up there’s more fair territory. When you’re back here there’s less fair territory because you’re behind the line and guys reach too much. That’s what I mean when I talk about attempting to bunt versus being successful at it.”

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