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About Last Night: The Audacity of Bunting

The first spark of the rally preceded a team-wide fulfillment of expectations.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Seattle Mariners Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Bunting is bad. We know this. In almost every context this has been found to be true. They almost always often reduce run expectancy, require immense precision, and have extremely low upside. They also can make people on the internet very angry in certain circumstances, apparently, although that’s not what I am here to focus on today. In 45,533 plate appearances that have resulted in bunts in play since 2002, 14 have resulted in extra-base hits (all doubles). Over that entire stretch of time, the wRC+ on bunts (which doesn’t even count situations where players attempt to bunt and strike out) is 71. That’s the equivalent of putting 2017 Taylor Motter up to bat 45,553 times. Of course, that includes many pitchers who are intentionally sacrificing themselves, so when removing them the numbers begin to look favorable. In 33,323 non-pitcher bunts in play, position players have accrued a 122 wRC+ in that same time period. This is flawed as a measurement for a couple reasons, of course, namely that this does not account for the many bunt attempts that fail and result in 0-2 counts for hitters. Still, for a speedy player who is practiced at bunting, there is a space to carve out success.

Jarrod Dyson was brought to Seattle to bunt. The fastest man in the Major Leagues this side of Cincinnati has bunted 124 times in his career. Subtracting the 31 sacrifice hits he’s had, Dyson is hitting .419 on bunts put in play, and has a 126 wRC+ on them. Since Dyson entered the league in 2010, only 16 players have had over 100 plate appearances where they put a bunt in play, and as you might imagine they are among the fastest players in baseball. Leonys Martín, Dee Gordon, Brett Gardner, and Juan Pierre are among the players listed, and Dyson fits right in. Bunting for hit is a dodgy strategy in general, but when Jarrod gets a bunt down, he is more likely to get a hit than 1941 Ted Williams. He knows what he does well and in the bottom of the sixth inning last night he began a sequence of players doing their jobs that has been nearly impossible throughout the first couple months of the season.

For 5.1 innings last night, the Mariners looked befuddled. Justin Verlander was in vintage form, a mixture of a James McCann solo shot and some softly hit singles put James Paxton on the ropes despite his velocity climbing back to pre-DL levels. Jarrod got on, however, eschewing whatever rules may or may not have been on his mind as Zach described last night. The rest of the team followed suit, and suddenly a team mired in mediocrity looked like the offense that shouldn’t be counted out of any game that we expected entering the year. Mike Junino walked, finally cashing in on the fourth three-ball count from Justin Verlander. Jean Segura, back in record time from his high ankle sprain, dropped a single in. Ben Gamel singled on a fastball because inexplicably pitchers continue throwing him fastballs, and it looked like a baseball game again. After Canó battled through 15 minutes of stepping off and time called only to be struck out looking, a Nelson Cruz laser brought home two more. As Zach noted last night, even trailing 4-3, it felt almost assured that the Mariners were going to win.

Sure enough, the next inning Mitch Haniger strapped a baseball on a taut zipline into the Mariners bullpen. After Segura and Gamel reached again, Canó made up for his backwards K the previous inning with a scorched line drive double, and the game was won. This is obvious, of course. It’s what happened and what we’ve rehashed joyfully the last 12 hours or so. It’s also, at last, what we expected at the start of April. An offense that is never out of a game. A lineup where every at-bat gives you something to be excited about. A rotation that is shaky but supported by excellent defense. a bullpen that can lock up a lead or keep a game close for a comeback. A team that performs to expectations.

Injuries and ineffectiveness have robbed us of a team we deserved to be excited about so far this year. Not a perfect team. Not an ideal team. But a fun team, with depth and potential to be good enough. That depth was built to withstand setbacks, but by rights they should be buried. Instead, they’ve survived, and last night we saw the team we’d been denied. The Mariners are the healthiest they have been in two months. They are a 1.5 games back from a playoff spot, with two inferior teams ahead of them and a very friendly stretch of schedule upcoming. Segura is going to hit. Canó and Cruz are going to club the ball. Mitch is going to mash. Gamel is going to punish fastballs. Dyson is going to bunt. Dave Sims called it audacious last night, but all it really was was doing what was expected of him. Last night was the first time this team played at nearly full strength, and if it was any indication, we can expect a lot of fun.