A sizable contingent of White Sox fans spent years bemoaning Ozzie Guillen’s obsession with the bunt. As it turns out, the guy the Sox hired to replace him is Guillen’s polar opposite in that respect. Three seasons in, it’s quite clear that Robin Ventura isn't all that crazy about bunting.
When Ventura first took the helm in 2012, it was pretty uncertain what his stance would be on sacrifice bunts, as he was described as an old-school guy with an openness to incorporating sabermetric principles. Fans may recall Ventura’s 18th-ever major league game in which he went a little nuts against the Oakland Athletics, calling for six sacrifice bunts. Although he was just getting a feel for the job at that point, it was concerning because the White Sox were coming off a season in which they finished second in the American League in sacrifice attempts, and the threat of another Pierre-esque offense loomed.
Since then, however, Ventura has toned it down. Like, waaaaaay down.
In that 2012 season, the White Sox ultimately finished 11th in the American League in bunt attempts. The next two seasons? Dead last, and not particularly close to 14th. Ventura has called for just 55 bunt attempts in the last two years. That’s just once for about every six games.
It’s remarkable that Ventura has been able to resist asking his hitters to lay one down, because the White Sox have had an above-average success rate in every season of Ventura’s tenure. While it’s true that these teams haven’t exactly had a Juan Pierre type in the lineup, the stats indicate that Sox players haven’t exactly been incompetent at bunting either. It’s further astonishing because Ventura has generally opted to go with bat-handly types rather than good hitters in the second slot of the order, and number-two hitters are generally charged with the "get-him-over" phase of run-manufacturing.
Ventura also seems to have a good understanding of whose at-bats are expendable. The biggest argument against bunting is that from a pure run-maximization standpoint, it’s better to have a major league hitter swing away. Context aside, the better the hitter, the more you’re giving up by having him bunt. Over half of the White Sox’ successful sacrifice bunts from 2014 came from Gordon Beckham (.598 OPS) and part-timers Adrian Nieto (.635 OPS) and Leury Garcia (.399 OPS).
There are, of course, plenty of scenarios in which a bunt is a good idea. It shouldn’t necessarily reflect poorly on a manager if a bunt total is high, because every team gets a different set of situations over the course of a season and has different levels of bunting ability throughout the lineup. Furthermore, with offense down around the league, the penalty for giving up an out to move along a runner isn’t as severe as it was a decade ago.
However there’s still a slight trend of bunt overuse around the league, and at the very least, we can conclude from Ventura’s league-low attempt totals that the White Sox aren’t contributing much to that. Further, it confirms that Ventura isn’t trying to force his players to be something they aren’t. The White Sox haven’t had many great bunters during his tenure, and Robin isn’t asking them to conform to a particular strategy just because of conventional wisdom.
In light of this observation and the information brought to light earlier this offseason about Ventura’s good bullpen management, it seems unfair that Robin takes as much flak as he does for the past two seasons. All indications are that he’s a good clubhouse leader, and while no one is lining up to declare him a great tactician, he’s definitely getting some things right. One of Ventura’s biggest issues thus far has been lineup construction, but the addition of Melky Cabrera will essentially improve that aspect of Robin’s managing by default. The 2015 White Sox will feature an improved, retooled roster. There’s plenty of reason to believe it’s in capable hands.