Small Ball A Secret Weapon
How College World Series Champions
Utilize Bunting Offense To Win Games
Originally printed in the October 11, 2002 edition of Collegiate Baseball Newspaper
By LOU PAVLOVICH, Jr.
AUSTIN, Tex. ó A distinct change has developed in the game of baseball. For much of the 1990s, Louisiana State University made the College World Series its playground as the Tigers won four national championships (1991, 1993, 1996 and 1997) behind superb pitching along with big, strong batters who could hit the ball a mile.
This style of offense was coined "gorilla ball" by many in the media.
Many college teams began recruiting bigger players who could hit the long ball as a weight training arms race hit new heights. Creatine use among college baseball players was rampant to build thicker muscle mass.
In four of the last five years, NCAA Division I teams with sophisticated bunting games have won the College World Series.
Breaking it down even further, College World Series second place finishers four of the five years since 1998 are well known bunting teams in Arizona State (1998), Florida State (1999), and Stanford (2000, 2001).
The trend has been crystal clear to many in baseball that the bunt is playing a bigger role than ever.
It is no coincidence that the mandatory -3 bats, introduced during the 1999 season, have played a pivotal role in this transition as the long ball has taken a lesser role on offense.
Southern California, a team known for its superb bunting game with Coach Mike Gillespie, won it all in 1998. That was followed with two national tittles in three years by Miami, Fla. (1999, 2001) headed by Coach Jim Morris, another bunting advocate.
Last season Texas won the national championship under Head coach Augie Garrido, possibly the best in the business at teaching bunting and all the fine nuances that go with the short game.
The only team that won a national title form 1998-2002 not known for a pressure bunting offense was LSU during the 2000 College World Series.
Garrido, who led the Longhorns to a 57-15 overall record last season, became the first skipper in history to win national championships in four difference decades.
He won national titles at Cal. St. Fullerton (1979, 1984, 1995) as well as the 2002 championship at Texas.
A cornerstone of his offensive approach in 34 years of coaching with a cumulative 1,380-666-8 record is the bunting game.
"Bunting is very important to me," said Garrido.
"Bunting is a way of giving an offensive player an easier way to contribute to the offensive rally. Thatís my first concern ó finding ways to help the player be successful. Bunting is a heck of a lot easier than hitting.
"Really thatís where it starts for me. Bunting effects the defensive alignment. The fact that you can bunt brings the infielders on the corners in more often and possibly allows balls that can sneak through that otherwise wouldnít.
"As far as total offense goes, the bunting game does play a role in that. There are three phases to offense. You must get on base. You must advance runners into scoring position. And then you must score runners. The bunting game allows a batter to do all three. You can bunt for a base hit to get on base. You can bunt to advance runners, obviously. You can squeeze bunt or safety squeeze to score runners."
It was pointed out to Garrido that he is the only head coach to win national titles in four separate decades and asked how important the bunting game has been during those time periods.
"It seems that more teams are bunting more often now. But the game hasnít changed a whole lot philosophically to me in the last four decades. A long time ago I felt it gave a player the chance to contribute to the offense, and I still do.
"The lower the level you go, the less apt they are to contribute by hitting which is a much more difficult skill. I go back to the player himself and try to find a way that he can contribute to the offense and feel confident he can do that."
Value of Bunting
Garrido was asked how he teaches his layers to bunt so skillfully.
"The first thing to do is have the players understand the value of bunting. Part of the psychological problem with bunting is that you canít simply ask a less than successful hitter to bunt. If you ask such a player to bunt, he thinks you donít have confidence in his hitting, and that doesnít work. The player needs to know that he is bunting because it is his contribution to the rally.
"Players must practice bunting consistently in game environments and use it in games and not be afraid to do it. There is no question they would rather hit. Thatís another think I like about the bunting game. To do it well, it forces the player to be unselfish and make his contribution to the offense when you are advancing runners and so on. But you must use bunts in games.
"The fundamentals of bunting are pretty simple. You keep your balance, see the ball and get the bat out in front and watch the ball off the bat. Get your angle early. Most guys who donít bunt very well donít get into the proper position prior to the ball getting to them. So they donít track it very well, and they donít get the angle because they are rushed. So there is a timing and a rhythm to it that needs to be followed. You need to keep it simple to be consistent."
Garrido was asked when his batters begin showing bunt.
"If the infield is back, I would rather have our hitters not show a bunt early if we are going to bunt for a base hit. If the infield is already in, you might as well just turn around and do it because it eliminates one f the elements of timing.
"It is important for the bunter to position himself in the front of the batterís box prior to bunting the ball to allow for better bunting angles in fair territory. We have a batting cage that is set up for the bunting game and have targets that the bunters aim for. We also have targets on the field as well when they bunt. We try to bunt at specific areas and try to play games with it so they have fun with it.
"We donít want our hitters attempting to deaden the ball because that is when hitters pop it up. So I just have them be firm with the bat and try to get the ball on the ground quickly. This allows the bunter to stay on top of the ball and let the ground deaden.
"When you get an early first bounce on a bunt, it helps the runner so he can get a good jump."
Garrido was asked how he likes his bunters to grip the bat.
"I like to see the top hand up on the bat to a point where the barrel is resting between the thumb and forefinger with those fingers out of the way of the ball striking the barrel. Those fingers are firm on the bat. Then you slide the bottom hand up a little bit as well so you have balance. When you have balance, it is easier for you to control the bat and see the ball.
"Another key teaching point is to keep the barrel of the bat in position so you have the proper angle prior to the ball hitting the bat. Then you can see the ball and the bat come together so that contact zone is out in front of the eyes and slightly off to the side so you donít foul a ball off into your face."
How sophisticated do his teams get with the short game?
"To be honest, you will never, ever get control of this game. You just try to work on the percentages and get players a chance to contribute to the rally at the time they are involved with the rally. Then the results will take place. There are no guarantees in this game."
Garrido was asked why there are not more bunts put down on the Major League level to prepare teams for the post-season when bunts can win or lose championships.
"I really donít know. You would have to ask Major League coaches, managers and players. I donít pretend to know the strategy on this level of baseball. We all know Earl Weaverís strategy. I wonít question that or criticize that because I havenít walked an inch in his shoes, Joe Torreís or any other Major League manager. I donít know how they prioritize what should be done at the Major League level."
Bunting Puts Ball In Play
Garrido said he resorted to utilizing the bunting game during his high school coaching career many years ago out of necessity.
"I think what motivated me to teach players to bunt early in my coaching career was that it was a way for the high school players to contribute. For a young player, or any player for that matter, it is about their confidence. If you canít contribute to the offense, then you start playing with less intensity on defense. Thatís just the way it works. With high school players, I wanted to give them a way for them to be successful and put the ball in play. Thatís where it all started from."
It was pointed out to Garrido that good bunts on the Major League level, or any level for that matter, can cause nightmares for defenses. Good bunts cause errors on the pro level just as on the college because throws are rushed and defensive players are usually throwing off balance.
"It puts the ball in play, and thatís one of the major issues with bunting. When you put the ball consistently in play, you have an edge. Bunting allows the batter to hustle down to first base and let the defense make mistakes. If the batter strikes out, it comes down to whether the catcher catches the ball or not."
Toughest Bunt To Defense
Garrido was asked what the most difficult bunt is to defense.
"A real tough bunt to defense is the one that is in between the pitcher, second baseman and first baseman. If you get all three of those defensive players going for the ball, you have them beat because nobody is covering first base. That is the ideal situation. If the ball is in the right place , it forces three players who all have the responsibility to cover first or get the ball. They all must make a quick decision as to who will do what. That is where the problem is for the defensive players. One must cover the base. Another get the ball and the other get out of the way. Itís a tough, tough play to make when the ball is hit in the right spot."
Garrido was asked if he utilizes any special bunting charts to track bunts during the season.
"No, not really. I know who can bunt and who canít through the many practices we have. So that isnít necessary."
Garrido was asked if the hitting vision of his players, such as tracking pitches and reacting to them, is enhanced by spending a considerable amount of tie on bunting.
"There is no question that bunting helps a hitterís tracking ability. When you bunt a ball, it is one of the few skills that allows a player to track it from the pitcher and see the ball come off the bat at contact."
The Texas skipper had one final tidbit of advice for coaches on the subject of bunting.
"If you donít practice bunting, your players will probably not be able to do it during a game. If you donít practice it in game-like situations where you have high intensity, you will probably not be able to bunt during games. The best way to do this is for the players to play games with high intensity concerning the bunting game. Have them hit targets on the field with their bunts. You can also have 2-man teams going against other 2-man teams for competition."