Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

Jarrod Dyson and the beauty of a bunted baseball

03/23/2014 9:02 AM

03/23/2014 9:02 AM

We’re on the back fields of the baseball complex in Surprise, Arizona. It’s not yet noon, but you can already feel the heat beating down on your head. They say it’s a dry

heat, but I’m pretty sure they say the same thing about Hell.

Coach Rusty Kuntz has already thrown ball after ball off the centerfield wall so the Kansas City outfielders could practice playing the carom. After that Rusty threw about 140 pitches in batting practice. Now he’s working with outfielder Jarrod Dyson on bunting. Everyone else has gone inside—it’s just Rusty, Jarrod and me.

Rusty’s head is not protected from the sun because his hat is lying on the infield grass about halfway between home plate and first base, a few feet from the first-base foul line—Dyson is using it for a target. When Jarrod is sacrifice bunting with a runner on first base, Rusty wants him to place his bunt between the hat and the line. That will force either the pitcher or the first baseman to sprint to the line to field the ball.

A second target—a bucket—sits on the back edge of the infield grass, right in front of the four-hole; the spot where a second baseman would stand. With nobody on—when Jarrod is bunting for a hit—Rusty wants him to bunt the ball a bit harder and aim for the bucket. That puts the ball in the “Bermuda Triangle” of the infield; a space where the pitcher, first baseman

or

second baseman might have to field the ball. Place a ball in that spot and you might get three people trying to pick it up; lots of things can go wrong for the defense.

Rusty explains that if Dyson bunts the ball at the bucket when he has a runner on first, an athletic first baseman can go to his right—

toward

second base—pick up the ball and make the throw to second to get the lead runner. It’s even easier if the first baseman is athletic, easier still if he happens to be left-handed.

That’s why Dyson has to hit the hat when there’s a runner on; the first baseman will have to charge forward—

away

from second base—and he’ll be lucky to get Dyson, one of the five fastest guys in the American League, much less the lead runner at second.

Rusty is preaching the benefits of speed to the converted; Jarrod Dyson. Every player who makes it to the big leagues has at least one big-league level tool, that’s how they got here. Jarrod Dyson’s big-league tool is speed. The more Dyson can use his speed, the better player he’ll be. Get away from that speed and Dyson’s game will suffer. Keep the ball out of the air; when you hit a fly ball it doesn’t matter how fast you are. Keep the ball low: line drives, grounders and bunts—and run like hell.

Rusty loves to teach by asking questions. For the first time he acknowledges my presence when he turns to me and asks: “Back in the day, who do you think of when you think of bunting?”

“Rod Carew.”

“Hall of Fame?”

“Yes.”

“How many hits?”

“Over 3,000.”

“How many were bunts?”

“I don’t know, but a lot.”

I then point out that Carew probably got a lot of hits that weren’t bunts when he slashed the ball past a third baseman playing in for a bunt that never came.

“Good point.”

Then Rusty points out the benefits of even a

failed

bunt: make the pitcher sprint to the foul line and he’s huffing and puffing as he walks back to the mound. When you see a pitcher sprint, you’ll often see someone come to the mound to buy time, to let the guy get his breath back before delivering the next pitch. According to Rusty, that one sprint can use up a pitcher’s legs and shorten his outing by as much as 10 to 12 pitches. Force the starting pitcher to run a bit and you might get into the bullpen an inning earlier.

150 bunts later, bunting practice is over. Rusty and Jarrod walk around the infield picking up baseballs and putting them in buckets. I want to offer to help, but non-ballplayers are generally discouraged from stepping on a ball field. So I stand to one side, leaning against the backstop, until Rusty yells at me, suggesting I pick up a bucket and make myself useful.

“Are you sure I’m not breaking a union rule?”

The 150 balls that Jarrod bunted go back in the buckets; a spring training game starts in an hour. The three of us walk back to the clubhouse, through the Arizona heat, talking about Jarrod Dyson and the beauty of a bunted baseball.

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