The World Baseball Classic has been filled with drama, close games and major upsets.
It has also been filled with bunting.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the bunt. In the right situation, it can be both a great tactical weapon and an aesthetically pleasing play, a combination of skill, speed and catching the defense off guard.
Very seldom has that been the case in the WBC.
A decision to bunt may have cost Cuba a trip to the final round in San Francisco. Against the Netherlands on Monday, Cuba started the top of the seventh with a leadoff double from shortstop Raul Gonzalez followed by a walk from right fielder Alexei Bell.
In a 4-4 game, Cuba had runners on first and second with nobody out and arguably its five best hitters—Yulieski Gourriel, Jose Fernandez, Frederich Cepeda, Jose Abreu and Alfredo Despaigne—lined up to impart damage against righthander Shairon Martis, who in 2012 had a 5.17 ERA in 139 1/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A.
Instead, Cuban manager Victor Mesa told the 28-year-old Gourriel to bunt.
That’s Gourriel, a two-time Cuban MVP, a veteran of every major international tournament over the last decade and a .325/.430/.500 hitter this season in Cuba, being forced to give away an out to try to move runners over.
Gourriel, who had doubled in his previous two at-bats, looked about as comfortable as you would expect from someone who’s rarely asked to lay one down. Gourriel looked awkward, dropped the bat head and popped out to the pitcher. Fernandez followed by grounding into a double play, killing Cuba’s chances to blow the game open. Gourriel’s ninth-inning error led to the game-winning run as the Netherlands went on to win 7-6 to clinch a spot in San Francisco and eliminate Cuba from the tournament.
“I’m asking my players to do a lot of bunt practice,” Mesa said through an interpreter during pool play in Fukuoka, Japan. “Two players, Fernandez and Cepeda, they don’t bunt a lot when they play in the domestic leagues in Cuba, so I’m asking all my players to practice bunting. It’s an important part of baseball. Although we gave the bunt sign, a lot of the players don’t want to bunt, so that’s a tough situation for a player.”
Gourriel wasn’t the only star player that Mesa inexplicably asked to bunt. Jose Abreu, a towering slugger, is the former single-season home run record holder in Cuba and their most dominant offensive weapon. He was asked to bunt. Alfredo Despaigne, who broke Abreu’s home run record last year and was hitting balls nearly 500 feet in batting practice, was also told to square around.
It’s not just Cuba where bunting has gone wild. The bunting epidemic truly has gone global. Consider some of the most extreme examples of the WBC bunting frenzy:
• Cuba leads Brazil 2-0 in the top of the fifth with a runner on first and nobody out. Cuban catcher Eriel Sanchez strikes out on a foul bunt attempt. Cuba manages to score two runs despite forcing their catcher to bunt with two strikes.
• Cuba leads heavy underdog China 1-0 in the bottom of the second with runners on first and second and nobody out. Sanchez bunts a foul pop up to the first baseman for an out. No runs score that inning.
• Canada trails Italy 5-1 in the top of the fourth inning with runners on first and second and nobody out. With Canada needing a big inning to come back, Chris Robinson sacrifice bunts the runners to second and third. Adam Loewen strikes out and Pete Orr pops out to the third baseman in foul territory. No runs score that inning.
• Spain trails Puerto Rico 3-0 in the top of the sixth inning with runners on first and second and nobody out. With only 12 outs remaining to score three runs, Spain’s Yasser Gomez—a former Cuban Olympian and one of Spain’s top hitters—attempts a sac bunt but pops out to the third baseman in foul territory. No runs score that inning.
• The Netherlands already has a 4-0 lead over Australia in the bottom of the third with runners on first and second and nobody out. Netherlands third baseman Xander Bogaerts sac bunts the runners over to second and third. No runs score that inning.
• In the same game, the Netherlands still leads 4-0 the next inning and gets runners on first and second again with nobody out. Jonathan Schoop bunts down the first base line but Australian first baseman Mike Walker gets the lead runner at third for the force out. No runs score that inning.
• Team USA leads Canada 2-0 in the top of the second with runners on first and second and nobody out. Adam Jones sac bunts the runners over to second and third, then Eric Hosmer and Shane Victorino can’t bring the runners home. No runs score that inning.
• Later in that game in the top of the eighth with Team USA trailing Canada 3-2, the United States again had runners on first and second with nobody out. Ben Zobrist attempts a sac bunt but pops out to the catcher. In steps Jones to bail out manager Joe Torre with a two-run double to center field, swinging away as he should have been doing in the second inning.
• A Bunting Derby broke out in a second-round game in Tokyo between Japan and Taiwan, a contest that featured a whopping seven bunts. In a scoreless game in the top of the third, Japan first baseman Atsunori Inaba hit a leadoff single, then moved to second on a sac bunt from Takashi Toritani. No runs scored that inning. In the top of the fifth with Japan trailing 1-0, Inaba again led off the inning with a single and moved to second on another Toritani sac bunt. Perhaps you’ve picked up on the pattern—no runs scored that inning.
In the eighth, with Japan trailing 2-1, runners on first and second and no outs, Yoshio Itoi bunts to the pitcher, who throws to third base to get the out on the lead runner. Japan did tie the game up on a single from Hayato Sakomoto—no thanks to Itoi’s bunting.
Right Place, Right Time
That isn’t to say that bunting is always terrible. China manager John McLaren was working with players who, aside from Triple-A third baseman-turned-shortstop Ray Chang, aren’t good enough to even get a contract to play Rookie ball. With runs scarce for China and the likelihood of a strikeout or grounding into a double play high, moving a runner over in exchange for the out is a sensible decision.
One of the reasons so many of the sac bunt attempts resulted in an out without the runners even advancing is that managers have been so predictable with their decisions. When Brazil’s Paulo Orlando came up with nobody on and one out in the fifth inning of Brazil’s opening game against Japan, Orlando dropped a beautiful bunt down the third base line. Orlando took advantage of a defense not expecting the bunt—though given his speed, perhaps they should have—to catch them by surprise. Orlando stole second, then scored on a double from Leonardo Reginatto to give Brazil a 3-2 lead.
A bunt even led to the biggest moment of the tournament with Canada leading Mexico 9-3 in the top of the ninth, when Robinson led off the inning by dropping a bunt single down the third base line. Why did it work? Cruz wasn’t expecting the bunt. And Robinson wasn’t expecting an international incident.
The bunting obsession is nothing new for international baseball. In 2003, playing in a qualifier in Panama with a chance to go to the 2004 Olympics and defend their gold medal on the line, Team USA trailed Mexico 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth. With back-to-back singles from Grady Sizemore and Graham Koonce, Team USA suddenly had runners on first and second with nobody out.
Team USA manager Frank Robinson called DH Ernie Young back to the bench and summoned Joe Mauer, Baseball America’s reigning Minor League Player of the Year, to pinch-hit. Mauer, the team’s best hitter, was told to bunt. Mauer got the bunt down, moved the two runners over and left Team USA with just two outs remaining. Justin Leone followed with a groundout to the pitcher. Gerald Laird, who got the start at catcher over Mauer, finished the game by popping out to first base.
Aside from the bizarre mismanagement of Mauer’s talent, at least Robinson had some justification for bunting in the bottom of the ninth in a one-run game. Some of the bunting decisions in the 2013 WBC have been more perplexing. For the hitters, they’re just doing as they’re told.
“To me it’s not a surprise,” Jones said. “Last year I only had one bunt but the year before I had 14. It’s part of my game. When he called on me to get the sac bunt, I’m confident in my ability to get it down.”
Unlike several of the hitters who have looked uncomfortable squaring around, Jones did get his bunt down and move the runners over. The question is whether managers are making the right decisions to have players like Jones bunt in the first place. The better the offense and the higher the run scoring environment, the more valuable outs become. For Team USA, which has a lineup full of all-stars and has faced several fringy or worse pitchers, giving away free outs is a welcome gift for their opponent. Then there are all the failed attempts before the manager takes off the bunt sign that force the batter to hit with two strikes.
“I’m not surprised,” said Team USA second baseman Brandon Phillips. “You have to do fundamental things to get a win. When it’s time to get guys in scoring position, we’re all capable of bunting and we did that. We know we can hit, but when it’s time to do your job for the next guy, that’s what it’s all about.”
With Japan and its small-ball culture already headed to San Francisco, there’s certain to be more head-scratching bunts in the final round. After taking the bats out of the hands of some of its most powerful hitters, Cuba won’t be joining them there. Whichever team emerges from Miami to join Japan and the Netherlands in the final round—and perhaps win the 2013 WBC—might be the team that just lets its hitters swing the bats.
Contributing: J.J. Cooper