Buck on Pop Up Drills, Bunting to Beat the Shift & Davis/Pearce's Positions

Over on ESPN.com, Jayson Stark had a bunch of interesting quotes from Buck in an article over the weekend.  Like usual, it is difficult to tell whether Buck totally believes what he is saying, sort of believes what he is saying, or is straight up trolling.

On piping in crowd noise from Delmon Young’s ALDS Game #2 double during pop up drills:

"I don't ever want to do something that they go, 'This is just eye wash,'" Showalter said. "It's got to be practical. It's got to be, 'OK, this is going to help us win a baseball game.' It's not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything. You're always trying to simulate the reality of a game, as opposed to what might make you feel good after the work is done."

Not only do I buy that Buck is 100% sincere here, I think the noise drill is borderline genius. As J.J. Hardy states in the article, pop up drills during Spring Training are borderline useless because they are so unrealistic.  The player knows a pop up is coming and the environment (noise and other distractions) is basically set up for ideal conditions.  It does not accurately simulate what goes on in a game.  In the article, Stark goes onto write that Showalter showed a video of 25 fly balls from last season where the infielders and outfielders converged.   He and the coaches told the players that the infielder should always go high and the outfielder should go low so if they do come close they can avoid a collision.  The coaches also stressed using hand signals to interact whenever possible.  In a sterilized drill, there would not be any real need to use hand signals or slide out of the way of a potential collision.  Only by making the conditions less than ideal – piping in the loud noise – can game conditions be replicated.  It was a brilliant way to make a point.  Maybe this won’t have an impact on any one play in the season.  The fact of the matter is, all teams do fly ball drills during the early days of Spring Training.  If a team is going to do it, they might as well do it in a realistic way that hammers home the point that is trying to be made.

On left-handed hitters bunting down the first base line rather than the third base line to beat the shift:

"I'm not so sure that bunting to third is the answer," he said. "I'm not sure it isn't bunting to first. You've got a second baseman in right field. You've got a first baseman on the outfield grass. You've got a shortstop up the middle. Where's the bigger-risk bunt? Third, where a pitcher can cut it off? Or first, where there's not as much touch allowed and you can [bunt it] firm over there? I know what the answer is that I'm getting." 

On the surface this appears like a radical suggestion.  A lefty power hitter bunts in the first place because he is trying to avoid the shift.  Why would he seemingly bunt into the shift?

Showalter explains his thinking in his usual Socratic manner with the second to last sentence (question).  Buck does not mention the third baseman in the above quotes, but the third baseman to me is the essential player in this entire thing and why it might make sense.  If a team has a full shift on, the third baseman will be playing a normal SS position (normal depth) while maybe shading a little towards 3B.  If bunting for a hit down the third base line in that situation, the hitter either needs to bunt the ball hard down the line (and keep it fair) or plant it between the pitcher and catcher down the third base line.  Theoretically, he could also bunt it past the pitcher but in front of the third baseman although that sort of bunt is almost impossible to complete on skill alone.  The batter could not simply bunt the ball hard passed the pitcher because the third baseman would be in position to make a play.

Not to mention, in some situations the third baseman will play in a more traditional position if the team fears a bunt.  With two strikes, he will then move into a complete shift.  Evan Longoria and the Rays, as one example, have definitely done this.  In that case, the hitter doesn’t even have the entire left side of the infield free.

In either situation, it could make sense to maybe bunt down the first base line.  Unlike the third baseman who would play at the regular shortstop position, the second baseman will be far back in the outfield grass during a shift and the shortstop will not normally be in the traditional second base spot either.  Many times the first baseman will also be planted several feet behind first base on the outfield grass.  In that situation – as Buck suggests – the batter has more margin for error by bunting down the first base line.  He can bunt it hard and if he gets the ball passed the pitcher, he has very good odds of reaching base.

What at first seems counter-intuitive actually makes a lot of sense.  It doesn’t mean the Orioles should or will bunt down the first base line all of the time in those situations.  The exact infield alignment and what side of the mound the pitcher falls off to are also relevant factors in the decision.  It is very smart to keep that option in mind, however.  This is another great example of how Buck really does think about everything

On Chris Davis playing right field and Steve Pearce playing first base:

"You know, there's a lot of debate," the manager said, "about what's our best defense? Is it Pearce in the outfield and Chris at first? Or is it the other way around? I don’t know. But we’ll come up with that as we get into it.”

This is the one suggestion from Buck in the Stark article that appears the most farfetched.  Davis is an adequate first baseman who has played little right field.  Pearce rates out well at both positions.  Why move Davis off of his natural position without evidence that there will be a significant net gain?  On the surface, this seems like it might be one of those times where Buck is simply thinking out loud and/or blowing smoke to a reporter.  Unless either Pearce or Davis fail in their more natural position, this would appear to be a “shuffling the deck” type of move and one that wouldn’t have a material impact.

There is also a possibility that Buck is thinking about longer term scenarios where it might make sense to play someone other than Pearce at first base while also keeping Davis’ bat in the lineup but that’s pure speculation on my part.  For example, say an outfielder goes down with an injury during the season and the organization determines that Christian Walker is the best option to be called up.  Against left-handed pitching, it would make sense to play Walker at first base, Pearce in the outfield, and Young as the designated hitter.  If Davis is hitting well, his bat is likely more valuable in the lineup than the other left-handed outfield options so he would shift to the outfield.  That is obviously an isolated scenario and I am not sure that even Buck seriously plans for such scenarios.  At the same time, there are probably other scenarios one could conjure up where it the O’s would benefit from Davis playing in the outfield.

The proof will be in the pudding with this one.  If Davis and Pearce receive significant spring training time in the outfield and at first base, respectively, than maybe Buck thinks there is real value to be add by swapping roles.  My instincts say this is just Buck thinking out loud.  At the most, I think he is leaving open the possibility that either Pearce or Davis struggles enough defensively to entertain the switch but even then, I am not sure there is anything to suggest that such a scenario is likely to occur.

Always fun getting a glimpse into the baseball mind of Buck.  One of my favorite parts of the season is watching his pre and post-game press conferences as he asks himself questions and wonders aloud about unconventional moves such as these.    He’s always thinking and questioning.  More importantly, he is always making everyone who listens to him talk think and question the way we look at baseball.  It makes following the Orioles that much more enjoyable of an experience.