Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The play

Seeing everyone hang Brian Bixler out to dry for the failed bunt play in the ninth inning yesterday is driving me insane. According to the recap in the PG, the team seems to be breaking the play down thusly:

  1. The Pirates have practiced safety squeezes all spring.
  2. Bautista just pulled one off last week.
  3. No one from the dugout gave Bautista a signal to bunt, meaning he did it on his own.
  4. Bixler failed to score, and that's his and only his fault.
I have not seen the play and will accept the fact that had Bixler broken properly, he would've scored. It still drives me completely insane to see him made a scapegoat for this play.

A safety squeeze is a rather difficult play to pull off properly in any context. If you're unsure of what it is, basically, the hitter lays down the bunt and the runner is supposed to run once he sees the bunt is laid down. In theory, this prevents the runner from barreling into a catcher who's holding on to a missed bunt. Instead, it often results in hesitation and runners being thrown out at the plate, or runners not running at all. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but if I had to guess I'd say that the number of people that score on safety squeezes in which everyone is working in concert would surprisingly small (if you can prove me wrong on that claim, I invite you do so because as I said, I'm just guessing here). Had Russell called for the squeeze from the dugout and Bixler had been thrown out, I would've been fairly upset but at least seen some kind of defensible logic in the play, especially since it worked last week in Atlanta.

The problem is that he didn't call for the bunt from the dugout. Bautista took it upon himself to lay the bunt down with the assumption being that Bixler would know what to do. The problem is that properly executing the safety squeeze is a split second reaction that a runner has to be ready for. When Bautista squared around, Bixler's first thought likely wasn't, "Safety squeeze! Going on contact!" It was much more probably, "Holy f*$k! Did I miss a sign?!?" You can call that bad baseball instincts if you want, but Jose Bautista is not a bunter. I understand that he made the same play work last week, but it only happened with a sign coming from the dugout and everyone on the same page. Unless Tony Beasley reminded him about the team's "Bunt whenever you want, even if it isn't prudent" situation, there's no reason Bixler should've been thinking about a bunt if one hadn't been signaled. He's not on third thinking about going on contact, he's on third thinking about what kind of ground balls he should be running on. The split second that it takes to rewire your brain for something entirely unexpected is a split second too long.

There are two things that drive me insane about this play. If Russell wants to have a "bunt whenever policy," then there absolutely should be a signal from the batter to the runner, especially if the runner is on third base. If it's simply and constantly changing, no one will ever be the wiser. The runner is already worrying about a million things on third and to expect him to be able to keep up with the whims of the batter as well is crazy. Generally, standing on third goes like this in a close game:



The other thing that drives me nuts is Jose Bautista's lack of faith in himself. To me, laying that bunt down was Bautista screaming, "I DON'T THINK I CAN GET A HIT OR EVEN A FLY BALL! PLEASE GOD DON'T LET ME STRIKE OUT OR HIT INTO A DOUBLE PLAY! BASEBALL IS HAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRD!" He's not a bunter and he shouldn't possibly feel more comfortable about laying down a successful safety squeeze than hitting a sac fly or a single. Yes, a ground ball could lead to a double play, but so could a bad bunt! In fact, in that situation it's going to take an absolutely perfect bunt to score a run, but it wouldn't take a perfect hit. Maybe Bautista saw something in the field that the coaches didn't, but it's still going to take luck for a play like that to work if the runner isn't clued in. A hitter that's worried about a possible bad outcome is a hitter that has no chance in this league.

So if you're keeping track at home, I think that it was stupid of Bautista to think that Bixler would know what to do if he squared around to bunt. I think it was probably cowardly of Bautista to defer to a bunt in that situation. I think it's inexcusable that Russell hasn't instituted a signal between the batter and the runner for situations like this, and I think it's terrifying that Russell has created an environment in which he's defending Bautista for dropping down a bunt in a situation that he had no reasonable reason to do so. In all honesty, I think it was one of the stupidest baseball plays I have ever seen. You can disagree with me on this, but short of someone saying, "Bixler missed the sign," there's nothing you can say that's changing my mind.