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OC Register: Hoornstra: Barrage of bunts could signal a tipping point in baseball’s fly-ball revolution

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Bryce Harper was the Phillies’ first batter in the eighth inning Saturday night at Dodger Stadium. The reigning National League MVP had doubled in his first at-bat of the night and homered in his second. Now, facing burly right-hander Reyes Moronta, Harper did a strange thing for a slugger. He squared up to bunt.

The bunt was a beauty, a medium-fast dribbler between the mound and the third-base line. Moronta got his glove on it but couldn’t get off a throw. It was recorded as Harper’s 14th and final hit of the week, which culminated with an NL Player of the Week award.

Harper is no stranger to bunting for a hit. In 2015, amid the best season of his career, he drew the ire of then-Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams for bunting to start an eighth-inning rally. Harper would finish that season with 42 home runs and 38 doubles. Williams, in lockstep with orthodox sabermetric strategy – the strategy that relegated bunting from standard practice to niche art form – wanted Harper to try for another.

Flash forward to Monday. Before their series opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Dodgers wheeled the batting cage onto the field behind home plate. Three left-handed hitters – Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger and Gavin Lux – practiced dropping bunts down the third-base line.

That night, Muncy faced the standard left-handed hitter’s shift when he came to bat in the sixth inning. Rather than swinging to put the ball in the air, he bunted for a single. It looked eerily similar to Harper’s bunt two nights earlier. The next batter, Chris Taylor, hit a two-run home run – necessary insurance in a 5-4 Dodger win.

Like many erstwhile sluggers, Muncy has had trouble placing baseballs over the fence in 2022. His manager, Dave Roberts, loved the bunt attempt. He loved the result even more.

“I really believe that that sparked that inning,” Roberts said.

Muncy and Harper combined to hit 71 home runs last season. Now they’re bunting to try and beat the shift. Are we witnessing a tipping point in baseball, a pushback against analytics?

The answer might depend on who’s asking.

“A stolen base brought no value when you look at the game from an analytics standpoint,” Muncy said. “It brings no value to you as a player, so guys stopped doing it. But the teams that won and played really good, they still did it. So from a personal standpoint, there may not be a ton of value to it but from a baseball standpoint, there’s a lot of value. That’s where it’s getting back to playing baseball. That’s where you have to have a really good blend of analytics and baseball.”

In other words, do contemporary analytics serve to help players earn big free-agent contracts, or to help teams win baseball games? Muncy’s answer suggests a conflict of interests – rarely acknowledged publicly – inherent to how teams and players are rewarded in 2022.

When it comes to bunting, as opposed to swinging for the fences, context is key. Muncy, Bellinger and Lux are all left-handed hitters. All have been afforded the standard left-handed hitter’s shift. All have struggled to hit through, around, or against the shift to some degree. Muncy’s .164 batting average (through Tuesday) was lower than all but six qualified hitters.

The purpose of Roberts’ pregame tutoring session Monday was not to teach the trio how to sacrifice a runner to second base. The purpose was to teach them a different way of getting on base, by bunting for a hit.

Many baseball insiders, including Commissioner Rob Manfred, predicted some time ago that left-handed hitters would begin adjusting to extreme shifts by bunting, or hitting the ball to the opposite field. It rarely happened, however. Batting averages continued to fall, with the home run serving as a hitter’s ultimate pursuit.

Prior to this season, MLB installed a humidor in every park that did not have one. Those 20 parks have seen home-run rates plummet. Getting the ball in the air – over the shift, over the fence – has gotten much harder.

The timing of the Dodgers’ bunting practice hardly seems coincidental. Roberts said that by adding the bunt to his toolkit, Muncy can become “a complete baseball player, taking what the defense gives you.”

“If there’s an opportunity to get something done, you should be open and willing to do it,” Muncy said. “Be a baseball player. Be an athlete. That’s really what the conversation was about. It had nothing to do with whether you’re performing or not performing.”

The tipping point, then, is not about whether analytics are dead, but whether the baseballs are dead enough to restore the balance between swinging for the fences and bunting to get on base.

“Analytics are amazing,” Muncy said. “They do so much for this game. They allow us to look at so many different things. But at the end of the day, you’re trying to win a game. You’re not trying to win on paper.”

The Dodgers' Max Muncy waits on deck during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies last Friday at Dodger Stadium. Muncy and other left-handed hitters throughout MLB have started bunting more often to combat the defensive shifts opponents use against them. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
The Dodgers’ Max Muncy waits on deck during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies last Friday at Dodger Stadium. With home runs down this season and defensive shifts as prevalent as ever, Muncy and other left-handed hitters throughout MLB have started bunting more often. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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