By David Krival with Rudy Law, Fall 1995 HardBall Magazine
In the right situation, the the simple act of squaring to bunt puts tremendous pressure on the team in the field. Bunting irritates pitchers, often causing them to lose concentration and control. The ability to lay down a good bunt transforms the weakest hitter in the lineup into a genuine nuisance, able to advance a runner or leg out a hit. Why then, do so few players, even at the highest level, do it well?
Rudy Law, who began his career in the Dodger organization, feels that poor instruction and erroneous concepts are to blame. "I was never a great power hitter, but I had good speed. Maury Wills taught me how to handle the bat and run the bases,” says Law. "He told me that becoming a good bunter would help me in many ways. Besides being able to bunt for base hits, a good bunter forces at least one infielder to play up, and that turns ground ball outs into base hits.”
THE WRONG WAY
Many amateur coaches teach a young player to wheel around to face the pitcher, bringing his back foot parallel with his front foot, holding the bat in front of his body. There are several problems with this technique, according to Law.
First, in order to reach an outside pitch, the batter must lean sideways at the hip. This is awkward, and it may alter the elevation of the bat head, causing the batter to pop the ball up rather than lay it down. Squaring up with feet parallel exposes the bunter to an errant—or purposeful—inside pitch. In his later years, Nolan Ryan was notorious for drilling the ribs of impudent young men who tried to bunt for a hit. Ex-professionals or not, most players have been brushed back or worse while attempting to bunt in this vulnerable position. Making the play downright risky does not make it easier to execute.
THE RIGHT WAY
"I bunted a lot,” says Law, "and I was never hit more than three times in a year.” The reason is simple: Wills taught Rudy to pivot the back foot, turn the hips, and square the shoulders, not the feet, to face the pitcher. In this position, Rudy sees the ball well because his head is "down on the ball.” He can avoid an inside pitch by leaning or pivoting, just as he would if he were hitting away.
Rather than leaning sideways to cover the plate, Rudy crowds the plate slightly. When he pivots his back foot and squares hit shoulders, he will be able to reach the outside pitch by extending his arms a few inches.
This technique is also much quicker, allowing the hitter to wait until the pitcher is further into his delivery, so he does not tip off the play so soon. "The longer you can wait, the more the infielders have to scramble all over the place,” says Law. "And there's always the chance that someone will forget where he's supposed to go, or hesitate, or leave you a big hole to aim for.”
HANDLING THE BAT
Once the bunter has squared himself properly, he must handle the bat correctly to lay down a good bunt.
The simplest way to understand how to handle the bat is to break the technique down into four components:
- The grip
- Bat-head elevation
- Directing the bunt
- Deadening the bunt
The Grip: The correct grip uses only the thumb and index finger. As he pivots on his back foot to face the pitcher, the bunter slides his top hand up the barrel of the bat, then grips it firmly with thumb and index finger just below the tradwmark. This allows him to place the fat part of the bat in the impact zone without exposing his fingers to injury.
Elevate the Head: The best bunt is a slow ground ball, not a line drive or a pop-up. Holding the bat parallel to the plane of the ground will result in a line drive. Letting the bat head drop below the height of the handle usually produces a pop-up. To lay down a perfect rolling bunt, hold the bat head a few inches higher than the handle.
Placement: Some coaches teach players to direct the bunt by using the thumb and index finger of the top hand as a kind of fulcrum. "That's a good way to get the bat knocked out of your hand,” says Law.
The bunter controls placement by the angle at which he holds the bat. At 90 degrees to the path of the ball, the bat directs it back toward the pitcher. By angling the bat away from the pitcher, the bunter redirects the ball toward either baseline.
Wills taught Law not to worry about drag bunting. "It's very difficult and it's not necessary, even when you're bunting for a hit. Once you square around, the fielders are all running every which way. If youget the ball past the pitcher, your chances of beating it out are excellent.”
Deadening the Ball: This may be the most difficult skill to learn. The bunter must read the velocity of the pitch and allow his arms to absorb some of the impact. "Let the ball hit the bat,” says Rudy. "It's a matter of touch. The only way to get good at it is to practice.”
Properly executed, a bunt is a great offensive weapon, but a bad bunt is a wasted at-bat, or worse. To become an effective bunter, practice the following drill either in the batting cage or in pre-game batting practice.
CORRECT BUNTING TECHNIQUE DRILL:
- Crowd the plate a few inches. As the pitcher winds up, pivot the back foot, turn the hips and square the shoulders, NOT the feet, to the pitcher.
- While pivoting, bring the bat down and slide thumb and index finger of top hand up the barrel to just below trademark. Grip firmly. Elevate the head of the bat a few inches above the handle.
- Redirect the ball in the desired direction by controlling the angle at which the ball meets the bat.
- Let the ball hit the bat. Let your arms absorb some of its momentum to deaden the impact.
Repeat until proficient.
ABOUT RUDY LAW
Rudy Law was a Major League centerfielder and lead-off hitter for six seasons. "I owe a lot to Maury Wills,” says Rudy. "He taught me how to use my speed. By reintroducing the running game, Maury revolutionized baseball. He broke Ty Cobb's single season stolen base record. I do't see why he isn't in the Hall of Fame.”
As a rookie in 1980, Rudy stole 40 bases. After L.A. traded him, Law hit .318 for the White Sox in 1982. The following year he hit .283, stole 77 bases and starred in the LCS. Playing for Kansas City in 1986, a knee injury abruptly ended his career.
From 1991 through 1994, Rudy played in the MSBL of Southern California.