Bunting is hard. Matt Harvey makes it look nearly impossible

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Thursday, June 28, 2018

Even 130 years ago, bunting was controversial. It was considered too easy -- there were rules suggested, and rules adopted, to make it harder -- and it was considered unsporting. "Indeed, the term 'bunt' itself appears to have derived from the lullaby 'Bye, Baby Bunting,' in an attempt by its detractors to associate it with childishness," writes Peter Morris in "A Game Of Inches."

So it'd be easy to assume that bunting is not difficult. Pitchers do it. How hard can it be?

To answer that, we're going to study Matt Harvey. In late 2013, Harvey -- then a Met -- had Tommy John surgery that put him out for a full season. At that point, he had been asked to bunt 11 times, and eight times laid the bunt down successfully. Once he struck out bunting, once he struck out swinging after failing to get the bunt down, and once he bunted into a double play. This is to establish that Matt Harvey is perfectly capable of bunting in the major leagues. He had demonstrated this ability.

Since that surgery, he has been asked to bunt 27 times. It is a stretch of 27 plate appearances that demonstrates beyond doubt that even if you know how to bunt, bunting is very, very difficult. You wouldn't fail like Harvey has failed at something that wasn't very, very difficult.

Remember: some 27 times he's been asked to bunt. There are, by my count, 13 different things that can happen after that, each outcome representing a certain level of skillfulness at the task. We're going to count down from the most skillful outcome, and tally how many times Harvey did each of them.

The best: A bunt single. A bunt so good that the opponent can't even throw him out. A perfectly placed bunt followed by a healthy gallop to first base. Pure profit. Harvey has, unsurprisingly, done this zero times.

The second-best: A successful sacrifice bunt, but the defense -- perhaps under pressure because the bunt was placed so well -- makes a throwing error to first base. The runners circle the bases! The pitcher who made the errant throw drops to his knees and puts his head in his hands, before running to back up home plate. The batter chugs down to first and takes a big turn, maybe even goes to second base while the right fielder paws for the loose ball under the security guard's stool in foul territory. Harvey has done this zero times.

The third-best: A walk. The batter has a goal, but he's aware enough to know that the right circumstances can open up an even better opportunity. These are rare, but they happen, and they are, also, pure profit, with the runners advancing, a new baserunner joining the train, and no out recorded. Harvey has done this zero times.

The fourth-best: Fail to get the bunt down, have the bunt sign removed, and get a base hit swinging. Harvey, who is hitting .098 (14-for-143) since his Tommy John surgery, has done this zero times.

The fifth-best: A successful sacrifice bunt. High-fives in the dugout, attaboy. You're a pitcher holding a bat, and while it'd be swell if you were Madison Bumgarner out there, more realistically this is all anybody asks of you. You did a job. Harvey has six of these. On three of them, he even did the job on the first strike he saw.

So that's six out of 27, or 22 percent of jobs done. I think this ends the part of the list that includes "job done" outcomes, though we'll debate that point in a minute.

The sixth-best: Fail to get the bunt down, have the bunt sign removed, and make an out. Not exactly a job done but, at least theoretically, this might still advance a runner, on a ground ball or a fly out. Harvey has done this one time, though he lined out and did not advance the runner.

The seventh-best: Fail to get the bunt down, have the bunt sign removed, and strike out anyway. An out is added to the ledger, but that's all the damage, and now you're back in the dugout drinking some alkaline water and getting ready for the next inning while the top of the order tries to pick those runners up. No attaboys, but as long as you didn't strain your rib cage we can happily admit we didn't expect much from you anyway. Harvey has done this two times.

The eighth ...

Guys, we're already to the eighth-best outcome and we've only got nine out of 27 accounted for! This is going to get dark.

The eighth-best: Strike out bunting. This is exactly equal to the seventh-best outcome in value (batter makes an out, runners stay the same), but it ranks lower for three reasons: One is that a full swing does, theoretically, allow for the possibility that something very big (a hit, a home run -- Harvey has hit a home run!) could happen, while a third pitiful bunt attempt offers very little upside. Two is that a third strike swinging ends with a big, athletic-looking roundhouse, while a third strike bunting ends with a pathetic little tippy-tapper in the wrong direction. But the third reason is he's supposed to be able to get the bunt down -- it's so easy! -- and so failing three times to do the simple thing looks sadder than failing twice to do the simple thing and once to do the hard thing. Watch the body language of a pitcher who strikes out bunting foul, and you can see that I'm right:

Harvey here nicks the ball foul, then bends over in regret, hands on thighs; then rouses himself and holds his bat by the barrel, looking for the moment like a guy who doesn't even understand which side of the club is for clubbing; wipes the spit and snot from his face with his custom-made Mets jersey; makes a bad-smell grimace with the left side of his mouth; looks off into a distant void; taps his hand with the handle of the bat, nervously aware that the camera is zooming in and tracking his sad walk home; then, with his head down, approaches the dugout, gripping the bat briefly with a hitter's grip, as though if only he'd been able to do that -- hit -- he'd have really done something.

The pitcher who strikes out swinging, meanwhile, typically looks almost triumphant to have fulfilled his obligation with as little running as possible, and he marches back to that dugout with the strut of a man whose real job is much more important than this.

Harvey has done this one five times.

The ninth-best: Bunt into a popout. Technically no worse than the strikeout swinging or the strikeout bunting, but introduces the real possibility that the runners, trying to get a good jump or caught in no-man's land, will get doubled off; or that a very aware fielder will let the ball drop and turn a double play because the pitcher who just laid down the terrible bunt was so frustrated he forgot to run. Like right here:

Harvey has done this three times.

The 11th-best (we'll circle back to the 10th-best in a minute): Bunt into a fielder's choice.

On a run-expectancy table, this is equal to the strikeout and the popout -- runners in the same spots on the bases, one out added -- but it's obviously worse to have the pitcher baserunning than any other player on the field baserunning. Not only is he probably slow and bad at running, but he's burning precious energy standing out there, and he'll probably hurt himself taking a six-foot lead off first base. A bad outcome. Harvey has done this once.

The 10th-best: Bunt into a fielder's choice, but the defense makes an unforced throwing error to the lead base. For example:

Attaboy? That's by far the most valuable offensive act that Bunting Matt Harvey has accomplished in the past four seasons. It didn't just get the runner over, but it got him in, and without even costing the Reds an out. It also only happened because the bunt was so bad the pitcher fielding it knew he had an easy out on the lead runner. It takes a terrible bunt for this one! And woof, what a bunt that one was: Directly at the pitcher, practically as hard off the bat as if he'd swung, hard enough that a good throw to third would have easily gotten the runner at third and might have ended up with Harvey doubled up at first.

I could go either way. It should be at the top of this list for what it accomplished, but at the bottom for intent, for skill, for a job done as designed.

Harvey has done this twice. The possibility of calamitous defensive miscue might be, as you're about to see, the only way to justify giving him the bunt sign at all.

The 12th-best: Fail to get the bunt down, bunt sign taken off, swing away and hit into a double play:

Harvey has two of these.

The 13th-best, and worst: Bunting into a double play. Worse than forgetting the bat in the dugout. Harvey has five of these:

The bunt so soft the catcher fields it and turns it into a 2-5-3 double play:

Or so soft the catcher fields it and turns it into a 2-6-3 double play:

The bunt so firm it is an easy 3-6-4:

The bunt popped up, then allowed to drop for a 3-6-4, because Harvey stops running when he thinks it is going to be caught:

The bunt that honestly doesn't look that bad, but when it takes you 4.9 seconds to get to first base it's a 2-6-3:

So, then, that's our tally:

Twenty-seven bunt situations: Eight times a baserunner advanced, including twice when Harvey reached on an error; but somehow 32 outs were made. The forget-the-bat strategy would have turned out better for Harvey's offenses, particularly if you make the reasonable assumption that a batless hitter would walk every 25 or so at-bats.

There's no way around it: This is a very mean post I have written. A lot of attention was dedicated to Matt Harvey's failures. But don't read it that way, but as a compliment aimed at every pitcher who ever successfully lays down a bunt (including, sometimes, occasionally, Harvey). Bunting is hard, and Harvey -- an elite athlete trying his best-- is the unfortunate collateral damage to this point being illustrated.

In "Game of Inches," Morris recounts what 19th-century manager Gus Schmelz said when his contemporaries declared the bunt easy. "That illusion can easily be dispelled if any of the parties who raise that objection will stand up to the plate and try to turn down a fast, high ball." It's not as hard as Harvey makes it look, probably. But it's not that hard to make it look that hard.