CHICAGO -- Mama said there'd be days like this: Down by three, nobody on base, bottom of the seventh, and you're getting beat by the Pirates. The Pirates! Again! If things like that keep happening, people will start to talk -- and they have, with the Cubs having gone 5-10 against the Pirates last year, and then losing the home opener on Friday.
So, that was the the situation when Carlos Pena stepped in against Paul Maholm. The former Rays slugger was heading into his third career at-bat versus the Bucs' lefty, having popped up and struck out earlier in the game. And he was going to have to hit into the face of the Pirates' defensive shift, with everyone pulled to the right side.
It's the classic Ted Williams conundrum: What's a pull-heavy, fly-ball bopper to do? Teddy Ballgame would just hit into the teeth of any shift, and more power to him, greatest hitter of a generation. But in this case, Pena decided to show bunt. He didn't get a breaking pitch to work with, fouled it off, and had to go back to plan and "settle" for doing something he's really good at -- drawing a walk. But where did playing at the little man's game come from?
Sabermetric orthodoxy generally suggests that the bunt's a bad idea. The sacrifice is best left for late-game situations when playing for one run will get you the run to win with, while bunting for a base hit isn't the sort of thing anybody can do reliably well. Nevertheless, couldn't this be one of those plays you might take an indulgent eye towards, even while acknowledging that bunting in general and bunting for base hits are low-percentage plays?
Dan Fox took a look at the idea at Baseball Prospectus while writing about Willy Taveras. The future Pirates front-office stathead came up with a success rate of just less than 40 percent as the mark at which it made sense for the then-Rockies speedster to take his best shot at beating out an intentional worm-killer. After the game, Pena guessed he could get this done right 50 percent of the time. This seems high, but remember, he's getting to hit against the shift. If that were really true, why not do it more often?
You can consider bunting towards the empty field as a way of trying to tweak scouting reports, and perhaps creating a baserunner when you're desperate for one -- as the Cubs were in this situation.
After the game, Pena noted that it's a more recent adaptation, stating, "It's actually something I've had in my bag of tricks. I recognize the importance of picking my spots. It's a tough thing to do. I have to be intelligent about when I do it, and maybe it throws them off a bit."
Manager Mike Quade also noted that he had the info at hand to suggest that maybe it was a good idea, with bench coach Pat Listach informing him that he'd seen Pena try it twice in games before. (Presumably this spring, in split-squad action.) However, lest anyone get too carried away with bunting for fun and profit, Quade also reminded the beat band that "it's a fine line ... if he does that, he's never going to hit home runs."
While Pena' game is built around the "Three True Outcomes" -- deciding everything at home plate by delivering either a home run, walk or strike out -- his play at patting a pitch towards the hot corner has its virtues. He was stepping in against the southpawed Maholm with a career line versus lefties (.218/.314/.436, striking out 30 percent of the time) that reflects the downside of his approach against the people he can't hit with the same authority.
As Pena subsequently noted, sometimes -- as long as it's just sometimes -- mixing things up a bit can make some sense. That's not the same thing as saying bunting for a base hit should be part of his everyday arsenal -- he won't fare well as a free agent after this summer in Wrigleyville if he does.