When Should You Be Allowed to Bunt?

Quick answer: whenever you feel like it. Longer answer: to follow.

You’ve already had the entire weekend to forget about last week, and over the weekend, there was an incident involving Carlos Gomez and Gerrit Cole that cleared the benches and that will lead to suspensions. So you’re forgiven if you don’t remember much from Friday, but from Friday, I’d like to present to you a sequence of events. Prior to the Gomez sportsmanship incident, there was a sportsmanship incident in a game between the A’s and the Astros with Jed Lowrie and Bo Porter right in the middle.

Bottom of the first inning:

lowrie1

lowrie2

Note the score, note the shift, note the maneuver. Jed Lowrie bunted and got thrown out. The next time Lowrie came to the plate:

lowrie3

lowrie4

And, in between the half-innings:

lowrie5

During a seven-run first inning, Jed Lowrie tried to bunt for a hit against the shift. The next time Lowrie batted, he got thrown at by a first-pitch fastball. Lowrie didn’t actually get hit and shortly thereafter he flew out, but as the Astros ran off the field Lowrie engaged Jose Altuve and then got yelled at by an angry Bo Porter. Both pitchers were warned, but the game finished with no further incident. By the time the media got to ask questions, there were some coolers heads, and it seemed like the matter had been dealt with.

Let’s acknowledge two things right away:

(1) As outsiders, we don’t have a great understanding of the unwritten rules, and of the ways in which they’re enforced. These are in-baseball issues, a lot of the time, and in-baseball issues sometimes don’t make a lot of sense, the same way friend-circle drama sometimes doesn’t make a lot of sense.

(2) The Astros were embarrassed and frustrated and when you’re feeling down, it’s really easy to be ticked off by anything. You’re practically looking for reasons to hate the world, and Lowrie poked at the Astros when they were already snarling.

Now then, what to make of this? Who was in the right? Interestingly, the Astros broadcast was annoyed by Lowrie immediately. Maybe that’s less interesting, since the Astros broadcast is biased, but they took no time in calling out Lowrie for a cheap maneuver. They agreed with throwing at him. Actually interestingly, the A’s broadcast didn’t exactly come to Lowrie’s defense. They didn’t pile on, like the Astros broadcasters did, but they acknowledged that the targeted fastball was easy to see coming, and they basically left it up to the audience to decide whether or not Lowrie’s attempt was justifiable. Clearly, they got why the Astros were annoyed.

Lowrie’s defense is a fine one — it was the first inning. I think, as fans, we usually fall on the side opposed to the unwritten rules, because the unwritten rules are irrational, but Lowrie tried to bunt when the A’s were up by seven, not seventy. The Astros had another 24 outs, and the A’s win expectancy was about 97%, not 100%. Of course, when the A’s are beating the Astros by seven, the game’s basically over, no matter how early it is. The A’s are a really good Major League Baseball team and the Astros are a really good Pacific Coast League baseball team. But the first inning is the first inning, and it seems mighty early to give up.

Somewhat implied is also the misconception that bunting leads to an automatic, easy hit. Lowrie, after all, was thrown out on the play. Bunting isn’t easy, and if bunting against the shift always yielded simple singles, we’d see it attempted a lot more often than we do. It stands to reason the Astros wouldn’t have gotten in Lowrie’s face had he swung away and ripped a single. They weren’t opposed to Lowrie trying — they were opposed to how Lowrie tried, even though it didn’t swing the odds very much. This gets into the familiar oddness of the running-up-the-score conversation.

After thinking and talking this through, it seems the Astros’ complaint is less about Lowrie resorting to bunting, and more about Lowrie resorting to strategy. Bunting is a baseball tactic, just like attempting a steal is a baseball tactic, and teams getting blown out don’t like when the other team steals. It seems like the unwritten rule is that, when the score is lopsided enough, the teams are expected to play straight-up. There’s no specific margin beyond which a score is officially lopsided, but teams will arrive at a quiet understanding.

Already, one is free to disagree with that. But the thing in this specific instance is also that the Astros were playing a shifted defensive infield. Shifting your infield isn’t playing straight-up baseball. That’s employing a strategic maneuver, and it makes especially little sense for there to be situations in which it’s okay for only one of the two teams to employ what you might consider trickery. Shifting is still not the usual way of things, and it’s used to improve your odds of recording an out. Bunting is a counter-maneuver against the shift. The Astros, basically, started it, by playing something other than ordinary, straight-up baseball. They demonstrated that strategy was still in play, so Lowrie tried something strategic, and it didn’t even work. Had Lowrie bunted against a regular infield, it would’ve been a little different, but had there been a regular infield, Lowrie wouldn’t have bunted in the first place, so you could say the Astros have themselves to blame. There can never be a situation in which it’s okay to have an effort imbalance. However much a team’s trying to come back, the other team should be able to try that hard to stay on top. Who could reasonably disagree with that?

Also, again, it was the bottom of the first inning, and baseball games last more than one inning. As it happened, the Astros subsequently tied a season-high with ten hits. They never got close, but they did get closer, and while what happened after the fact doesn’t mean much with regard to the first inning, the game wasn’t close to over.

I think we can agree there are certain things that just don’t feel right. If you’re stealing bases up by ten in the eighth inning, it makes sense why that would be upsetting, even if it’s all still just baseball and anything’s possible before the last out. You can rationally argue against most unwritten rules. But even if you grant that there can and will be certain unwritten rules, it’s hard to see how Lowrie was completely in the wrong considering the Astros shifted him first. What the Astros conveyed was, “we’re putting a little extra thought into trying to get you out.” So how Lowrie responded was, “I’m putting a little extra thought into trying to not get out.” It’s okay that the Astros were upset, but they should’ve just been upset at themselves. Lowrie hardly did anything extraordinary.

It’s all already blown over. These things usually do that, right quick. Which is what you’d expect of conflicts that don’t make rational sense even five or ten minutes after the fact. This probably isn’t the last time we’ll see something like this, given the popularity of shifting. But the next time I understand the perspective of the shifters will be the first time.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


69 Responses to “When Should You Be Allowed to Bunt?”

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  1. Jon L. says:

    Nailed it.

    +31 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. descender says:

    They get paid to play. Play to win.

    “Unwritten rules” are the bastion of the sore loser.

    +48 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • John Elway says:

      Exactly. Whining about a first-inning bunt would be like whining about Russell Wilson throwing a deep pass in the first half of the Super Bowl (I’m finally over that game)

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. atoms says:

    Total nontroversy. Astros are being needlessly butthurt here.

    +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. TKDC says:

    The Astros, who were also the worst team in baseball in 2013, scored at least 7 runs 24 times, or 15 percent of the time. They’ve done in once so far this year (in a game against the Angels started by Jered Weaver).

    Aside from the point you make in the first line, how is this approaching the standard for when a game is fundamentally over?

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    • quincy0191 says:

      Presumably because the A’s average runs/game when they’re already up by 7 in the first inning is much higher than 7. Their win expectancy was at 97%; your suggestion is that their win expectancy would have been at 85% if they never had another at-bat (technically higher, because you’d have to include all games where the Astros scored at least 8 runs, not 7, otherwise you’d go to extras).

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      • Corey says:

        Obviously teams that score 7 runs in the first inning tend to be teams that are swinging the bat well that day. It’s also obvious that the average run expectancy for the A’s is something like 5, so while the total run expectancy of the A’s was more like 10 or 11 for the game, pointing out that the Astros have about a 15% chance of catching up if they can stop the offensive onslaught isn’t unreasonable. It’s entirely plausible that the Astros could have come from behind to win that game. Unlikely? Sure, but certainly within the realm of the plausible, how often do most teams get shut out for 8 innings (maybe I’ve just been watching too many Mariners games)?

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  5. Hank G. says:

    If a team feels that they are so far behind that the opposition shouldn’t be allowed to continue to try to win, then they should do the honorable thing and forfeit.

    +54 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Eric says:

      they should commit seppuku huddled around the pitcher’s mound

      +26 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Zen Madman says:

      If a team feels that they are so far behind that the opposition shouldn’t be allowed to continue to try to win, then they should do the honorable thing and commit seppuku.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Shrewd Cat says:

      Yes, damn straight. Even playing local baseball that not stealing bases when up by heaps gave me the shits.

      It’s different in a sport like gridiron since if a team is up by 40 with a 2 minutes to go it’s impossible for the other team to win. But in baseball, like tennis, it’s never over til it’s over.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Doug Lampert says:

        Another difference is that in most timed games if you are trying to win when up several scores late then you SHOULD be trying to kill the clock by running simple safe plays that maintain possession.

        It’s only in baseball that sportsmanship seems to mean that you actually stop trying to win.

        I can see the point, in little league.

        Vote -1 Vote +1

        • quincy0191 says:

          I see what goes on in football and baseball as the same thing for the winning team. Both play the game safe; in football, that means placing less emphasis on actually trying to score and more emphasis on preventing the other team from scoring (even though those are paths to at least similar goals). In baseball, it means more emphasis on preventing the other team from scoring big, because you can’t limit their opportunities like you can in football – teams will give away a run or two to ensure the other team can’t get five.

          Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Llewdor says:

      That’s actually a really good point. You see this all the time in curling – when one team decides that victory is out of reach, they concede.

      If the Astros think the A’s should have stopped trying to win, then the Astros should have stopped trying to lose and just gotten it over with.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Hieronymous says:

    Today’s Orioles vs. Red Sox game shows pretty well why this unwritten rule is so stupid. Orioles take a 6-0 lead in the 3rd inning, but the Red Sox don’t just give up. In the end the Orioles won 7-6, having to use 5 bullpen pitchers and with the Red Sox having the potentially tying and winning runs in scoring position in the ninth. That early 6 run lead could easily have been a loss.

    +22 Vote -1 Vote +1

  7. x says:

    Really?It’s counter productive to focus on things you have no control over.Play against the game.Beat the ball.Too much focus on what the other guy is doing.You promise you’ll stop trying to score,I’ll promise that I will stop trying to score.Early in a series doesn’t it benefit my team to get deep into your pen in order to help my team later in the series?We are being WAY too sensitive.

    +11 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • KDL says:

      Hadn’t thought about that long-range aspect. And it’s a great idea.

      I had thought of this one, though…I love this from Lowrie’s perspective, considering the long term. He gets to plant the “I’m gonna bunt if you shift” seed in scouting reports. And he did it in a situation that is relatively harmless.

      +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  8. nellyson says:

    Bo Porter was just crying… shame on the Astros for throwing at Lowrie.

    +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Deacon Drake says:

    There are some instances where sportsmanship come into play, but this is far from one of them. It’s the first freaking inning! If the Astros were really that beaten that they were willing to roll over in the first inning, then they should have walked off the field and forfeited.

    However, they were playing a shift in an effort to better their odds of getting back into the game. Sounds like a case of sand in the cooter.

    +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

  10. MLB Rainmaker says:

    I continue to be unimpressed with Bo Porter.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  11. Lynn Walker says:

    Oh, please, not you too, Jeff! He “flied out”, not “flew out”. Have you been listening to Chris Berman or something? Yikes!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Mike D says:

    Bunting up by 7 is like having the goalie come and score up 5-0 in a soccer game. It’s a play that you don’t normally make and doesn’t usually work, but if you are winning so badly that it has a chance of working, it’s just pride at that point.

    -27 Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. joser says:

    Having watched the entirety of this game while it was happening, and having never forgotten it, I no longer believe there’s such a thing as “running up the score” in baseball. Especially early in a game. Sure, it’s rare (especially with teams as mismatched as the 2014 A’s and Astros) but comebacks happen. If the division or wildcard race ends up being decided by one game, you don’t want it to be the one where you slacked off to not make the other guys look bad and ended up looking bad yourself.

    +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. WAR and FIP says:

    You can bunt whenever you want if you’re zack cozart, better chance for an error than he getting on base for him

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  15. Zen Madman says:

    There’s another serious point that no one makes in these “running up the score” nonsense debates. Fans have paid money to see two teams compete. They have paid to see both teams try as hard as they can. The beauty of baseball is that it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Once you start acting like it’s not okay to try as hard as you can, you should give the fans a pro-rated refund based on the innings that you’re not really going to play.

    +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • David J says:

      While I agree to an extent, if you’re going to appeal to fan entertainment (which I think is a good thing to appeal to!) there is an equal argument to be made for following the unwritten rules.

      If a team does NOT run up the score, there is a better chance for the losing team to make a comeback, which makes for a far more interesting game to watch than a blowout.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  16. Cidron says:

    Lemme see if I have this right. Team does some non-standard strategic stuff against a player, its okay. Player in turn, does some non-standard strategic stuff to beat the team’s efforts, and its NOT okay. Unwritten rules or not, if it works for one side, it should work for the other.. ‘ … non standard strategic stuff to beat…’ is on both sides.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • RichW says:

      Except that one could make the case that shifts in 2014 are standard strategy. A fine point though, Lowrie did nothing wrong. This is no different than the stupid argument that one should not bunt to break up a no-hitter. In both cases players should be allowed to play the game as they see fit.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. Ben says:

    This particular unwritten rule is BS. If Lowrie feels bunting is the best way to get on base in a particular situation, to do otherwise undermines the game’s integrity.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. Josh says:

    “The A’s are a really good Major League Baseball team and the Astros are a really good Pacific Coast League baseball team.” Thank You, this is the best baseball sentence I’ve read recently.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  19. chuckb says:

    How am I not surprised that a pitcher named Clemens was the one throwing at Lowrie?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  20. Shrewd Cat says:

    If I was a manager I’d get together with the opposing manager before every series and tell them that if I get the lead I’ll steal bases and try to put on every run I can, but if you get ahead by a lot you can do the same thing and we won’t bitch about it.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  21. J says:

    I think part of it may have been the Astros taking umbrage, so as to get riled up. Hopefully get motivation to make a comeback. Same reason you see a manager sometimes get into an argument with an umpire to try to fire up his team.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  22. J says:

    Also, Lowrie and Altuve used to be teammates and a former DP combination. It seemed like Lowrie was hot, and Altuve was actually trying to calm him down when Porter ran out and told Lowrie to go take his position.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  23. frugalscott says:

    I have no problem with Lowrie bunting in that situation. I have no problem with Houston throwing at him next time up in that situation. My only problem is the massive indignation over the situation three days later…on either side.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  24. scruddet says:

    “The A’s are a really good Major League Baseball team and the Astros are a really good Pacific Coast League baseball team.”

    This is great, I just lost it

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  25. scruddet says:

    “As outsiders, we don’t have a great understanding of the unwritten rules, and of the ways in which they’re enforced.”

    Only part of your article that I don’t agree with

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  26. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I could understand getting mad if it was like the 9th inning or something, though even then I’m a fan of running up the score if you want, but in the first inning there is waaaaaaaay too much of a chance at comeback to ease up.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  27. x says:

    As odd as it sounds Lowrie & the A’s are respecting the Astros by continuing to try to score. In essence, they are saying we respect your team.We expect you to bust your butt to come back & beat us.(Especially with 8 innings left in the game)Do you think that the Astros would base hit bunt down 7-0 if they thought it would help them get back into the game? You bet they would & nothing would be said.Crazy one way thinking.

    As far as throwing at Lowrie,how does that help your team win? Getting the hitter out gives you the best chance of winning. You throw at hitters with the intention of hitting them, there is often retribution.You’re just exposing your players to an injury that could keep them out for an extended period of time.

    +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • John Elway says:

      Great point. I think John Wooden made exactly the same point about respecting the opponent, and he surely passes the Brian McCann test of playing the game the right way.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  28. LHPSU says:

    You know what the funny thing is? They’re not ok with Lowrie bunting to get on base, but they’re ok with throwing at Lowrie to put him on base. Who’s guilty of running up the score there? It’s the Astros running up the score against the Astros.

    If I were Lowrie, after that HBP, I’d steal second, steal third, then try to steal home. If I wasn’t trying to rub it in their faces on that bunt, I am now.

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

  29. jimbonator says:

    What I feel has gone unsaid in all of this: the Astros were ticked that Lowrie didn’t hit into an inning-ending double play.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  30. John C says:

    I think “unwritten rule” is a phrase coined by football fan to further bash baseball. I loathe the phrase.

    The Astros weren’t worried about unwritten rules, they were annoyed because they felt Lowrie pulled a…ummmm…dick move. It’s like taking BP and everyone is positioned for you to pull and you hit a pitch the other way. Somebody will call you out for being a dick. And that somebody was probably your friend.

    That was how the Astros felt. Lowrie pulled a dick maneuver. The Astros responded in kind. Lowrie is a fool if he didn’t expect to be thrown at.

    Tactically, Lowrie made a good decision. Realistically, he was just being an a$$.

    -7 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Johnston says:

      He was doing just what he was being paid to do, which is to do his best to get on base. Get over it.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Bip says:

      Tactically, Lowrie made a good decision.

      Why is more information than this required? The A’s were not guaranteed to win the game at that point, therefore there is still reason to make what is tactically the right move.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  31. Utah Dave says:

    I was watching the Astros broadcast. They were quite upset with Lowrie. They went so far as to say they didn’t think anyone in the A’s dugout would defend Lowrie’s actions. Not sure of the source of their data for that conclusion. It seems to me that Jeff’s argument about the Astros shifting and Lowrie bunting makes 100% sense. This whole emotional outburst lacks logic. You wanna be pissed at someone, maybe start with your pitcher and the rest of the Astros team.

    On a tangential note, we are seeing a lot more defensive shifting this season than in the past. As more teams start to buy into the inevitable use of analytics this trend will accelerate. But, like Newton said, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I wonder what the reaction on the offensive side of this equation is going to be. How many times does a player need to bunt (successfully or otherwise) to cause the defensive team to reconsider the shifting strategy?

    Yan Gomes stop being a dope. I’m sure there are lots of web sites devoted to humor of that variety. Maybe go bark up that tree a while where your incredibly humorous efforts will be fully appreciated by like-minded sociopaths.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  32. anonynous says:

    Another example of Bo Porter being clueless. Nothing new here.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  33. LONNIE says:

    Unless the Astros were going to quit trying to score then the A’s can do the same. I agree with the guy who said after the HBP he would steal a couple bases. Being aggressive is the A’s style and I like it. Bo Porter is a loser and so is his team.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  34. jfagan88 says:

    How about Jed Lowrie is arbitration eligible, and arbitrators care a lot about the first third of the slash line?
    How about Jed Lowrie is probably a competitive guy who doesn’t want his box score to have GIDP in it?
    How about Jed Lowrie is on my fantasy team? YOU HAVE PEOPLE COUNTING ON YOU JED! DON’T EVER GIVE UP!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  35. Brandon T says:

    Maybe shifting when down by a bazillion should be against the unwritten rules too, then?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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