On Tuesday night, Robin Ventura opened some eyes when he pinch-hit Adam Dunn for Alex Rios in the ninth inning of a two-run game. Ozzie Guillen never pinch-hit for Rios last year when the game situation mattered, because 1) it would disrespect a veteran, and 2) it required Guillen to care. It didn't matter that Rios was one of baseball's worst hitters -- he was hitting for himself every time.
This year, Rios is actually worthy of hitting third, but that didn't matter to Ventura. There was a game that could be tied in one swing, and there was a guy on the bench who is better at one swing. The strategy is debatable (especially since Gordon Beckham hit for himself), and when factoring in defensive positions and the timing of the runner reaching, it can be argued all day. Whatever you think of the call, we can say Ventura pursued a path never traveled by the previous regime, and lived to tell the tale:
“It’s not a big deal, but I’ve been I’ve been swinging the bat good,’’ Rios said. “So it didn’t cross my mind that I was going to be pinch hit for, but if it’s the best for the team to win that game, let’s go for it. It’s all about winning games.’’
Rios was 3-for-5 with two doubles Wednesday, raising his average to .362.
“My power numbers are not good,’’ he said.
The next day, Ventura did everything he could to prevent "bold" from being an applicable label, orchestrating a veritable smallball orgy that even Guillen would find excessive.
I don't want to pick on Chris Rongey specifically, because he's likely not pro-bunting as much as he's anti-all-bunts-suck. But I'm going to use a couple of his tweets from during the game, because they sum up the rationale for ample bunting rather well.
@SouthSideAsylum At 2nd with nobody out still means you need a hit to score the run. Flyball, squeeze, PB, WP all don't score the run— Chris Rongey (@ChrisRongey) April 25, 2012
@SouthSideAsylum Not just the WP, but the flyball and squeeze are in play. Depending on the day, I may not prefer to wait for the singles— Chris Rongey (@ChrisRongey) April 25, 2012
The problem with this line of reason is that it assumes the bunt attempt will actually accomplish the task of moving the runner over. That is dangerous thinking, because it's never a safe assumption with the White Sox (remember when Alexei Ramirez bunted into a triple play last year?). The probability that the bunt attempt will result in an unproductive out is significant, and when the payoff is more superficial than tangible, the spectrum of bunting ranges from "a waste of time" to "hopefully one run." That's not risk-reward. It's barely risk-shrug.
An unattractive proposition was defaced further by the shenanigans on Wednesday afternoon. The White Sox wanted to drop a sacrifice bunt on six different occasions -- and we have to say "wanted" because four of them did not work. Not only did every attempt make less sense than the one preceded it, but they also did an increasing amount of damage.
The kicker? Zero runs scored as a direct result of bunting.
Bunt No. 1: Alexei Ramirez bunts Alejandro De Aza to third after a leadoff double in the sixth inning.
Yes, bunting a runner to third decreases the run expectancy for the inning, but I understand why Ventura did it. The White Sox hadn't scored in 14 innings, they were tied 0-0, and the idea of just one run seemed really tempting. Of course, Dunn popped out, and Paul Konerko smoked a line drive directly to Jonny Gomes in left to end the inning.
Bunt No. 2: Ventura calls for a suicide squeeze, but Brent Morel makes an incomplete effort to put the bat on Ryan Cook's low-and-away slider, hanging Kosuke Fukudome out to dry.
After Oakland scored two off Chris Sale in the bottom of the sixth, the Sox broke the seal in the seventh with some good ol' fashioned aggressiveness. Joe McEwing waved Alex Rios home from first on Fukudome's double to left-center, and Fukudome took third on the unsuccessful relay throw home.
While squeezes are superficially aggressive, this was a defensive call, because -- horrors! -- Morel was facing a guy with a slider. In lieu of a strikeout, Ventura gambled that Morel would be able to put the ball in play and drive in a run given a 50-foot head start by Fukudome. But Cook made the right wrong pitch, and Morel compounded the problem by not giving it his all. Threat killed.
Bunt No. 3: In the eighth inning, De Aza shows bunt after a leadoff walk by Eduardo Escobar and gets drilled in the wrist area while pulling the bat back. Home plate umpire Jerry Layne rules that De Aza was trying to bunt. It's called a strike, and De Aza ends up striking out.
Now the bunts are starting to inflict physical harm and statistical harm. Had De Aza not been showing bunt, he could have taken an inside pitch off some arm meat. Instead, he damn near broke his hand/wrist while recoiling from a high-and-tight pitch. While it sucked to see him strike out, it was heartening to see that he could still grip the bat.
This would have been a great time for Ventura to earn his first career ejection, by the way.
Bunt No. 4: In the 10th, Escobar drops down an attempted sacrifice bunt after Morel leads off with a single. He doesn't bunt the ball far enough, and Kurt Suzuki throws to second for the forceout.
No additional explanation needed. No runs scored.
Bunt No. 5: Adam Dunn leads off with a double, and is replaced by pinch-runner Brent Lillibridge. After an intentional walk to Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski shows bunt against LOOGY-in-an-emergency Jerry Blevins. It's a breaking ball that's diving low, and Pierzynski pulls the bat back at the last moment. Anticipating a bunt, Lillibridge takes a massive secondary lead and gets caught way off the bag. Suzuki makes another strong throw to second and picks off Lillibridge.
This one really hurt the Sox, because Gordon Beckham (running for Konerko) was thrown out at home while trying to score from first on Rios' double.
Bunt No. 6: Morel bunts Dayan Viciedo to second after he reached on an error to start the inning.
Morel actually succeeded in laying down a sacrifice bunt, but when De Aza walked two batters later, it accomplished the same thing the bunt did. And De Aza ended up scoring from first on Ramirez's double to the left-center gap, so the bunt did not directly result in a run scoring when it otherwise wouldn't have.
Not only did Ventura keep bunting while the pile of discarded outs amassed behind him -- he never tried not bunting. From the sixth inning on, every time the bunt was available, he took it, regardless of the casualties experienced earlier.
He played for one run six times, but playing for one run does not ensure one run. If you were to put this on a chalkboard, it would look like this: 1 X 6 = 0.
We can issue the usual disclaimers -- it's only Ventura's 18th MLB game in a non-playing capacity, and it's only one game for everybody. Even established managers will make sketchy decisions. Sometimes it's on purpose, just to see what his players can or can't do in a situation to which they're not accustomed, or to prove a point. Sometimes they drop the ball.
However, one of my fears with the Ventura hiring is that he wouldn't have much imagination with game strategy. Sure, you can call him "Ploach" and say he has the qualities of a four-star general, but he hasn't had time to really watch managers make calls. In lieu of his own instincts, I thought he'd have to rely on abiding by the book.
What happened on Wednesday afternoon was more than going by the book. It was closer to following Google Maps directions into a lake. Ventura might turn out to be a great navigator, but this one is going to loom large for a while.
That's not necessarily a bad thing when looking at the big picture, though. He abused the bunt enough for two or three games' worth of mistakes, so if future damage is confined to similarly small areas, the learning process could turn out to be brutally efficient at the end of the year. Right now, all we know is that this was brutal.