© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, then bunting might be called the last resort of the hopeless hitter. Despite its general vibe of noble sacrifice, bunting is generally just about the worst thing a hitter can attempt. It gives away an out, the most precious possession any offense has. And yet, from time immemorial, ballplayers square around and bunt anyway, whether on orders from the dugout or from a big idea germinating in their own brain. Not all sac bunts are bad, but most should be avoided.
Other kinds of bunting are better. The bunting-for-a-hit approach has worked well for some—players like Vince Coleman, Willie Wilson, and Willie Mays Hayes often used their speed to get on base, and getting on base is what every hitter wants (or should want) to do. Even bunting in this way can be tricky, though, and not many players are effective with it anymore. All the youngsters want to do is hit dingers! Which is reasonable, actually, because dingers produce runs, whereas bunts mostly produce outs.
Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays has some speed, as evidenced by his play in the outfield and effectiveness on the bases. Despite that, though, Pillar is offensively challenged, and he knows it. So he demoted himself to the minor league camp Sunday and tried an experiment in two games being played on neighboring fields by Toronto's Triple-A and Double-A squads. In seven plate appearances in those two games, Pillar tried seven bunts. He went 0-for-7.
And that's why you don't bunt. So, did Pillar get the message after going 0-for-7? He did not!
From the Associated Press:
"It's something that I want to have as a tool, something in my back pocket," he said. "Find another way to get on base. To be confident enough to get my bunt down, place it where I want to place it. A perfectly executed bunt is tough to defend, even if they know it's coming."
Pillar has worked on bunting off a pitching machine and said it almost has become easy to place the ball.
Facing Yankees minor leaguers at New York's complex in Tampa, Florida, Pillar struck out in his first two at-bats on foul bunts with two strikes. After bunting the ball in the air to the first baseman on his next try, he got the final four attempts down but was thrown out each time.
On defense, Pillar can really go get it. Statistics credit Pillar with 21 runs saved in 2016, the third-most in all of Major League Baseball at any position. His 26.3 UZR/150 ranked first. Even if you ignore the statistics and just watch him play centerfield, Pillar routinely makes plays that Superman might. That's where much of his value lies. The bad, or anyway the comparatively mediocre, has always come at the plate, where Pillar has posted a career slash line of .267/.303/.385 in 1,444 career plate appearances. Adjusting for the context of his home ballpark and results by his peers, Pillar's career 85 OPS+ makes him something like the 115th best hitter in the majors since the start of 2015.
It is clear what Pillar was thinking during his back-field bunt spree in those minor league games. By using the bunt, not only might he pick up some useful singles, but also perhaps put some uncertainty in the collective mind of the defense. He also might get them to physically open holes in the field through which he might get conventional hits. It all sounds great. The problem, as usual, is bunting itself. If he can't get any of them down, Pillar's not going to be improving his offensive contribution. He's only going to make more outs, which once again is the thing that bunting does better than any other.
What should he do instead of bunt? It's easier to say than do, but he could try to draw more walks and use his speed after he gets on base. But at age 28, it's highly unlikely that his hitting approach is going to change much. And "just hit better" is not really the sort of thing that qualifies as advice. So, bunting it is!