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The fury and the fundamentals

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Why do some teams seem to be able to do the little things and others teams don't, and why we seem to care about them so much.

I know, more on bunting
I know, more on bunting
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

"Boy, it's been terrible. There's no sweet-coating it or anything. It's been terrible bordering on pathetic."

Mike Blowers concurred. "Little things, Dave. You gotta get the little things done if you want to win these close games. ... You have to think it'll be a point of emphasis next spring training."

These sentences were uttered last Friday, September 13, as the Mariners were on their way toward their 82nd loss. The play that drew their ire: Nick Franklin, in the top of the 10th inning, attempted to lay down a sacrifice bunt and popped it straight to a waiting Matt Adams, who was already playing in. It was only Franklin's second bunt attempt of the season, and his second failure.

It's easy to empathize with Blowers and Sims, who have been forced to watch the Mariners and their underperforming offense for more than five months straight. The exasperation in their voices has a sort of heavy weight to them, usually reserved for war reporting and parents of young children. It's tough to watch the bunt fail twice in one game, with notably poor bunter Michael Saunders already unable to lay down the sacrifice in the ninth, leading to a strike-him-out-throw-him-out double play. The M's lost, of course, in the bottom of the tenth.

The Mariners are a mediocre bunting team. They've succeeded at 70.2% of the sacrifices they've laid down this year; the league average for position players is around 76%. The difference between the Mariners and the rest of the league is three sacrifices over 150 games. Not good, but not terrible or pathetic.

But that's math, and numbers rarely touch the heart. There are few things in professional sports so irksome, so frustrating as the mislaid bunt. It's the little things, as Blowers says. How can you expect to win when you can't perform the simplest of tasks?

The little things aren't necessarily the easy things.

The problem is that this doesn't really make any sense. Just because an action has a tiny effect of winning, like hitting behind a runner or laying down a bunt, doesn't make that action any easier to execute. The little things aren't necessarily the easy things. Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter on the planet, makes outs just over half the time he steps into the box, and we consider this a supreme virtue. Failure is an ingredient of the game. But when Nick Franklin turns and moves his hand up the barrel of the bat, we expect him to succeed 100% of the time.

Which is strange, because there are few actions in sports that are considered to be automatic. There's the PAT in football, which no kicker missed in 2012 and which should probably just go away. In basketball, the closest equivalent is the free throw, which all players practice and for which 80% is considered a healthy rate. Tennis has double faults, but even these unforced errors are accepted as an unwelcome but unavoidable outcome.

What distinguishes each of these from the bunt is that they're all performed without direct opposition. The PAT, if kicked and blocked with the slightest effort, is impossible to stop, and the opponents by rule can do nothing in the other scenarios. But in baseball, the opposing team is trying its hardest to make the bunt unsuccessful, by positioning their fielders, by throwing tough pitches. The two that Nick Franklin tried to bunt in the extra innings last Friday were a 94mph two-seam fastball on the outside part of the plate and a 92mph four-seamer moving in on the hands. This is not to say that bunting is impossible; just that it's the sort of thing one could reasonably expect to accomplish as often as making a free throw.

If bunting is hard, why do we continually expect perfection? I don't believe that it's an explicit fetishization of smallball, or anything that preconceived. It's more primal than that, something buried deep in Sims's hopeless timber. Baseball is a game of fortune and misfortune, a game where liners are hit straight to waiting gloves and pop-ups fall in, where teams can go weeks without hitting with a man on third. There's so much about the game that is out of each player's control, let alone the manager's or the fan's.

The American ethos is built on reward for hard work. Baseball, despite being the American sport, seems to conflict with this principle. Not only are good deeds punished, but the unequal distribution of natural talent allows baseball to reward the indolent. We love hustle and grit and little things, but as Nick Punto proved the other day, grit detached from actual value is pointless at best, and in a way somehow grotesque. In the meantime, we celebrate the easiest, most natural of swings, precisely because they don't look forced or labored. Ideally, baseball would be a perfect combination of effort and athleticism, where the best pitches and the best hits provided the best results. This is not so.

The easiest way to win a 1-1 ballgame is to score three runs.

It's not comfortable living in such an environment. No one wants to conceive of a situation where they work hard and fail for no good reason. And that's why we need something we can rely on, something tangible and omnipresent. Something we can blame when the cards don't go our way. That's why we turn to the fundamentals, and say things like "you need to play the right way to win close ball games" when an extra home run would just as easily do the trick. After all, the easiest way to win a 1-1 ballgame is to score three runs.

But "playing the right way" goes beyond winning; look at Yasiel Puig, who is amazing and whose team is winning and who still gets criticized for missing the cutoff man and getting picked off from time to time. Our rational side knows that Puig's accomplishments far outweigh the bad, but it drives people crazy that these superhuman figures on our television screen might make a mistake they might not. There are many skills that require both a physical and mental aspect, some combination of strength and concentration. We have seen Tug Hulett ground out and Ruben Rivera run the bases, and only one stays with us.

Next spring, the team will place an emphasis on bunts, just like they practice backing up throws and running the pickle and everything else baseball teams do every year. No team intentionally ignores these things. Michael Saunders will put in extra time, and he will probably be bad at bunting next season, because he has always been bad at bunting. Whether this is a physical or a mental deficiency is irrelevant; one may as well blame Dustin Ackley's power on his unwillingness to lift more weights. The idea that everyone could bunt perfectly if they chose is as absurd as the idea that Shaq could have hit every free throw if he really wanted to.

In the end, the fundamentals are one of those things, like team chemistry, that tend to get criticized in bad teams and ignored in good ones. The Mariners under Lou Piniella were generally terrible at bunting, but no one cared because they still won ballgames. Winning saves us from our compulsions. When life is good, the scapegoat is just a goat.