Matt Williams has taken over a team that is not very good at certain fundamentals. One of them is bunting. The Washington Nationals, despite Williams’ public statements that this is a good bunting team and he intends to use the suicide squeeze and safety squeeze more often, can’t be guaranteed to lay down a bunt when the situation calls for it.
The bunt is overused by a lot of National League managers, and many of them unthinkingly utilize it when a pitcher is up with a runner on and less than two outs, and so on, but that does not change the fact that I have seen better bunting from kids on my son’s little league teams than I have seen from members of the Nationals. That’s inexcusable.
Bunting is a fundamental skill that every player on the major league roster should be able to handle without it becoming an adventure. It does not require power or the ability to hit. Bunting is an easily learned skill. It just requires practice, repetition and identification of whether the pitch thrown to the batter should be bunted or allowed to pass by. How many times have we seen Nationals pitchers trying to bunt a pitch that is clearly a ball, just because they have been told to bunt? Too many to count.
The Nats have few reliable bunters on the team. The best bunters on the Nats are Jordan Zimmerman, Steve Lombardozzi, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond. Denard Span can sometimes get one down when the other team is not expecting it and use his speed to get to first. Stephen Strasburg occasionally gets one down successfully. None of these guys are great bunters–they are only adequate.
The rest of the Nats are a joke when it comes to bunting. Gio Gonzalez knows he is bad at it, and always ends up laughing if he gets one down as he is thrown out at first. Ross Detwiler is uncomfortable with a bat in his hand whether he is swinging or bunting. Ross Ohlendorf is a terrible bunter. In one of his starts last year, he failed to get the bunt down in two separate plate appearances. On the rare occasion that Davey Johnson wanted a reliever to stay in the game and didn’t want to replace him with a pinch hitter, it was obvious the relievers don’t know what they are doing with a bat in their hands, even if they are asked to bunt.
The memory that sticks in my mind was watching Henry Rodriquez being asked to bunt in the late innings of a game so that he could pitch the next inning. That was a show–and not in a good way. It was obvious that Henry hadn’t bunted in years and had no idea what he was doing. It would have been painful to watch if it wasn’t hilarious. Needless to say he didn’t advance the runner. Hilarity should not ensue when the manager asks a pitcher to bunt, whether it is a reliever or a starter.
The player that should be bunting regularly but never does is Adam LaRoche. The best way to stop the defensive shift other teams are using against LaRoche is for him to, at least once a game, send bunt down the third base line where the third baseman has vacated his position. If he does it enough and gets on base, teams are going to have to take Adam’s ability to do that into account, and modify the shift or stop using it altogether, which will once again open up the right side of the field to him. LaRoche did not use that left side bunt at all in 2013. He did it a couple of times in 2012 and got bunt base hits when he tried it. LaRoche needs to be able to reliably put that bunt down to make other teams pay for the defensive shifts they have been using against him.
Bunting is a skill that the Nationals need to start working on in the off season and during spring training. Every player needs to take bunting practice until they get it right, and once they master the skill everyone needs to have a bunting workout three times a week to keep the skill honed. It doesn’t take long to keep the skill fresh in practice.
The best bunter the Nationals ever had was Livan Hernandez. Livan may have been one of the best bunters anyone ever had. When Livan was asked to get a bunt down, he did. Davey Johnson used Livan Hernandez as a pinch bunter late in the 2012 season–and of course Livan got the bunt down. That says volumes about how unreliable the bench guys were at bunting.
Perhaps the Nationals should hire Livan Hernandez to come to spring training and teach the rest of the team how to become good bunters. Someone needs to take this team in hand and get this fundamental skill taught to every player.