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Bunting Has Never Figured Much Into Orioles Manager Buck Showalter's Style

June 15, 2016
To bunt or not to bunt doesn't even qualify as a legitimate question anymore. Certainly not in the American League, at least. Especially if we're talking about bunts of the sacrificial kind.

However, that doesn't mean it can't be the subject for healthy debate. 

What, you ask, brings this topic up for discussion -- other than trying to make a connection between Buck Showalter, the Orioles' resident managerial mastermind, and the Earl (Weaver) of Baltimore? The answer to that one is as easy as it is obvious -- the current state of affairs with the Orioles when it comes to using the bunt, always a popular, if little used tradition in Baltimore.

Old-timers who swore by the practice insist bunting has become a lost art, while new-age tacticians say it's merely an outdated and long forgotten strategical ploy that doesn't work with the "all in" modern mentality. Weaver, of course, was an outspoken proponent of the "Dr. Longball" philosophy, preaching the value of "pitching, defense and three-run homers," the trademarks of his teams from the late 1960s through the early 1980s.

After watching the Orioles for the last five years, and especially through the first one-third of the 2016 season, Earl is beginning to look like "Dr. Smallball" in comparison to Showalter, who has all but eliminated the sacrifice bunt from his game plan. When they unveiled his statue at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 2012, Weaver thanked sculptor Toby Mendez "for making me look like Buck" -- and now we know why. 

Through the first one-third of this season, the Orioles recorded only one sacrifice bunt, an unheard of pace that would put them on pace to shatter the lowest number (nine) ever recorded by one team in a single season (more on that later). After close inspection of his record, it's safe to say no manager in the history of the game has used the bunt, specifically the sacrifice bunt, less than Showalter. Weaver would be impressed -- and probably even a bit jealous. 

Somewhere in the manager's waiting room in the sky, Earl and his alter ego, Gene Mauch, are probably still debating the value of the sacrifice bunt. "If you play for one run, that's usually all you get," Weaver is repeating for the zillionth time.

"You can't win until you get a lead," would be a counter argument from Mauch, who had a reputation as a brilliant teacher and conservative manager. 

"A three-run lead is better than a one-run lead," is how Earl would close his argument, but the debate, of course, would rage on. "Most one-run games are lost, not won," would be a comeback from Mauch, who once was famously quoted as saying: "I'm not the manager because I'm always right, but I'm always right because I'm the manager." 

It's hard to say Showalter is a disciple of Weaver, though he has gone out of his way to praise Baltimore's former legendary manager at every opportunity. Buck actually spent more time around another former Orioles manager, Johnny Oates. And he is an admitted protégé of Billy Martin, who just happened to be Earl's fierce and, at times, bitter rival. 

When it comes to offensive strategy, however, it seems obvious Showalter developed his style early -- and has since taken it to limits seldom reached by others. As a for instance -- and remember we're talking about the designated hitter era in the American League -- the highest number of sacrifice bunts executed by a Weaver managed team was 73 in the 1975 season (one more than the year before); the fewest was 26 in 1981, the only time the O's were last in that department during Earl's tenure. 

By contrast, in the eight years Showalter managed in the AL before coming to Baltimore (four with the Yankees, four with Texas), only once did his team register more than Weaver's low mark of 26 -- and that came in 1994, when the Yankees had 27. Strangely enough, despite what the current statistics show, Showalter has used the sacrifice bunt more in Baltimore than any time in his career -- logging 38 in 2012, 27 in 2013 and 35 in 2014. The O's used the "weapon" just 20 times last year, a number that appears out of reach of this year's squad of thumpers.

As the "Moneyball" phase has embraced the analytic era, it is interesting to note that the use of the sacrifice as a useful tactic has decreased -- particularly in the AL, where the designated hitters have replaced pitchers, who routinely would account for half of successful bunts. 

Still, change came sporadically rather than swiftly -- and styles of individual managers changed slowly, if at all. Mauch was a staunch advocate of using the bunt to gain an early lead, and his use of the sacrifice bunt clearly showed as much. With the 1964 Phillies, a team that lost the National League pennant in the final week, Mauch used the sacrifice bunt 97 times -- 67 of them with non-pitchers. 

Fifteen years later, six years after the DH rule was instituted, Mauch was managing the Minnesota Twins, who recorded 142 sacrifice bunts, a post-DH record destined to stand a long time and might even fall into the "never be broken" category. Like it or not (and believe me, many are reluctant to let go), the "art of the sacrifice bunt" has become a forgotten tool. 

So much so that this current Orioles team, on a pace for only six sacrifice bunts, could seriously threaten the "low ball" record of nine. That mark is held by the 2005 Texas Rangers -- managed, of course, by Buck Showalter. 

Move over, Earl, the new dude in town wins this one hands down.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.

Issue 222: June 2016