Paul Molitor well remembers that sensation of helplessness, of failure, even though it happened to him only 13 times in a career that spanned more than 12,000 plate appearances.
“It’s a bad feeling. I’ve been there,” the Twins manager said Saturday. “You’re standing in the [batter’s] box, you bunt, and the ball goes straight up. And you walk back to the dugout.”
These days, he still gets that feeling, way more than he would like. Molitor, who racked up 48 bunt singles over his Hall of Fame career, has watched his team botch dozens of bunt attempts this season, both in attempting to sacrifice or reach first base safely.
“Our bunting this year has not been good,” Molitor said bluntly, and the numbers bear him out: The Twins rank 14th among the 15 AL teams in batting average on bunts. They have converted only 22 sacrifice bunts from the 49 times they have managed to put the ball in play. And Twins bunters have popped the ball in the air 13 times this season, more than twice as many as any other team in the majors.
All that even though the Twins devote hours to bunting practice during the season, with players on the field before batting practice several times each month to work with coaches Butch Davis and Joe Vavra.
“It wasn’t too long ago that that was one of the points I brought forward to the team — it’s an area you should be able to improve upon by doing the work,” Molitor said. “It’s not really a talent thing, it’s just one of those things that takes time. Guys would rather swing than bunt, but if you’re having trouble, you’ve got to get in there and bunt more. Bunting off a machine or [against] a coach is a little different than against a 95-mph sinker, but you have to be able to do it.”
Byron Buxton is one player who makes it a point to work on his bunting skills frequently, in part because the speedy rookie feels a strong responsibility to execute when called upon.
“For me, not getting a bunt down is worse than striking out,” Buxton said. “I’m supposed to be able to do that when [Molitor] asks me to, especially being in the bottom of the lineup where I can help set us up in better position to score a run.”
Buxton has beaten out four bunt hits this season, and he has executed five sacrifices, including one Saturday night. But he’s popped up a couple, too.
“Bunting is tough, because yeah, you’re ready for it, but OK, he might throw me a curveball here. You stick the bat out there and you see it dropping, and it’s too late,” he said. “And your mind starts thinking, ‘Here’s what to do.’ But it’s so fast, you can’t think about it.”
The bunting problem has been teamwide this season, to an amazing degree. Of the 12 major league hitters who have popped up two or more bunts this season, five of them are Twins, with Kurt Suzuki’s four leading the majors. Buxton, Robbie Grossman, Danny Santana and former Twin Eduardo Nunez have also felt that sinking feeling of missed opportunity twice this year.
“Kurt’s bunted well for me in the past, but this year hasn’t been as good. [Eddie] Rosario is a decent bunter, especially when he’s bunted for hits,” Molitor said. “But it’s hard to measure whether you’re a good bunter when you’re trying to bunt off [Indians lefthander] Andrew Miller. I mean, there are different factors that make it more challenging.”
Molitor tries to take solace in the fact that it’s not just a problem for his team, either.
“As strange as it seems, when I watch and look at video of other teams to try to get an idea of their bunt defenses, I see a lot of teams struggling with bunting,” Molitor said. “We’re not the only ones.”