What’s Wrong with Baseball, Part IV: Why Can’t the Players Play the Whole Game?

Trailing by a run late in the game. A team is down to a precious few outs and desperately needs to tie. The first batter in an inning gets on. He singles or doubles. Now let’s bunt him over, either into scoring position or to third base so he can score on an out. Baseball logic dictates that the next batter bunts. O.K., have the next batter bunt.

I’m joking, right? Bunting rarely happens in baseball in the year 2014.

Yet certainly the baseball logic of our fathers and grandfathers would call for a bunt in most cases. That’s because the baseball players of their generations knew how to play the game—-the entire game. That, of course, meant that just about every major leaguer knew how to run the bases, knew which base to throw to in different situations and—-believe it or not!—-knew how to bunt even if the power hitters of that time didn’t do it frequently.

Today, of course, the bunt, no matter how logical or exciting, is rarely employed even when it makes sense.

Why?

On an given team of 25 players—-teams in the American league where the pitcher doesn’t hit—there are usually no more than a couple of players the manager can even ask to bunt (I didn’t say they were actually good at it. Indeed, only a handful of them will try it, although most will usually have about as much success with bunting as the MTA has running the New York City subways). And on any given team there’s usually no more than one player who is actually good at it and will use it on a regular basis.

This “I will never even try to bunt” approach is so bad that many infields will overshift to the right on a left hand hitter and leave third base undefended. If the hitter just rolls the ball in the direction of third base, he’ll have a guaranteed hit. Still, very few players will bunt in a situation in which a hit is a given. That’s because most hitters asked to bunt react as though they were PETA members served a large Porterhouse steak and told buen provecho. These little ball paranoid players refuse to bunt—or even try to bunt—in any situation, even when it could help the team.

I think back to the second round of the 2012 playoffs between my beloved New York Yankees—aka the Highbridge Heroes—and the Detroit Tigers. The Yanks had lost the first game of the series in heartbreaking fashion. Now they were down in the second game, but only one to nothing in the late innings.

Ichiro Suzuki, a singles hitter with lots of speed, led off the bottom on the inning with a base hit. The game now seemed up for grabs. The Yankees threatened to take command. The Tigers were only up by one and the heart of the Yankee order was coming up. In this situation, not only was there the potential for the Yankees to tie, but possibly take the lead. From a Tiger perspective, the defense was looking for a double play to kill the threat or at least a non-productive out to keep the tying run out of scoring position.

Mark Teixeira was up. He is a switch hitting, power bat who, with one swing, could homer the Yankees into the lead. He was batting left-handed against the Tigers’ right handed pitcher. The Tigers overshifted on the right side. There was virtually no one playing third base for the Tigers. If Teixeira bunted one down the third base line, the Yankees would have first and second with no one out—a situation that would give the Yankees an even better shot of tying or possibly winning the game with a big inning. The worse case scenario would have had Suzuki at second, in scoring position, with one out.

What happened?

Teixeira is another major leaguer who doesn’t even think about the bunt. He made an unproductive out. The Yankee threat went by the boards. The Yankees lost the game. They ended up getting swept in the series, but who knows how the momentum of the series might have changed if the Yankees had able to move the runner over, score some runs and win the second game.

Teixeira was later asked about not bunting and not taking a gimme hit that was there for the taking. I wasn’t there. I don’t know the spirit in which he said the following. But he told the writers that the last time he bunted he was “in Little League.”

Teixeira, the same as countless other major leaguers, couldn’t bunt, or maybe wouldn’t bunt. Homerun crazy big leaguers today often say that bunting once in a while would ruin their swing.

Really?

To me, it is one of the disgraces of major league baseball—-a sport and a business in which players make huge amounts of money and God bless you make all you can while you can—-that most hitters only want to go for homeruns at every bat. That of course, means they also strike out a lot. So when there are easy runs to be had, runs in which if a batter will just make contact it is highly likely a run will score, opportunities are often missed. I believe it is one reason why scoring is down across the big leagues.

This “they shalt not bunt” attitude happens, I believe, because modern players believe always swinging for the fences no matter the situation will generate more geld for them. That’s even though it is usually bad for the team.

Yet most old time players—players of the pre-free agency era before the mid 1970s, players who worked not on long term contracts, but played from year-to-year—-were not one dimensional. They knew and could execute all the basics of the game. Indeed, it was assumed in that era that all major leaguers could do so, otherwise they would have been in the minor leagues. For instance, the great Joe DiMaggio knew how to bunt, even though he wasn’t called upon to do it much.

I once asked my wonderful, baseball-loving pere if DiMaggio was fast and if he was a good baserunner: “DiMaggio,” my father said, “wasn’t a speed demon, but he was pretty fast. And he never missed a chance to go from first to third on a single.”

Why is the latter important?

Say you’re on first with one out and someone gets a single. You run the bases well—not just speed, you know how to cut a base—-and make it to third. Then the next hitter hits a fly ball to the outfield. You can probably tag up and score. Or if the infield is playing back, conceding the run, a softly hit ground ball will also plate the run.

However, if you only make it to second on the single, then you can’t score if the next guy makes out. You miss what could be an important run. You never know, until the end of the game, if this game will be a one-run game.

So a run here and there can make a big difference. By the way, the fantastic baseball book “Summer of 49,” a work about the race for the American league pennant in 1949 between the Joe DiMaggio New York Yankees and the Ted Williams Boston Red Sox, illustrates my point. There is a story about the first inning of the last game of the season between these two teams. The game determined which one would win the pennant.

Both teams knew it would be a tough, tight game. And it was. In the bottom of the first, the Yankees had a runner at third with one out. The Sox, trying to prevent a big inning and willing to concede one run, played the infield back. The great Yankee Tommy Henrich, a superb player who unfortunately played in the shadow of DiMaggio, took note. He was determined not to strike out. He choked up on the bat and just tried to put the ball in play. He hit down on the ball—-he “butcher boyed it”—-hitting a soft ground to the second baseman. He made a productive out and drove in the run.

It was to be one of only five runs the Yanks would score that day in beating a great Bosox team five to three. Henrich, who liked to hit homeruns the same as anyone else, put his team before his personal numbers. He got the job done. By the way, Henrich averaged 23 home runs and 100 runs batted in during his career.

Why did he drive in so many runs on just 23 dingers a year? Henrich only struck out 48 times a year! The Yanks, thanks to the man many called “Old Reliable,” didn’t miss a chance to score.

Missing a chance to score a run in baseball is tantamount to missing an opportunity to accomplish something in life. Do you want to achieve a goal or not?

Playing the game of baseball or the game of life the right way, and taking advantage of opportunities in personal finance, is what winning is about. Unfortunately, there’s lots of high-paid big league ballplayers who don’t seem to understand that. Maybe it’s why so few of them ever win a championship and why many of them end up broke.

About The Author

Gregory Bresiger

Gregory Bresiger is an independent business journalist from Queens, New York. His Personal Finance articles have appeared in publications such as The New York Post & Financial Advisor Magazine. He is the author of the eBooks “Personal Finance For People Who Hate Personal Finance” and “MoneySense”.