Bunt Defense - Ron Polk [ARTICLE]

Bunt Defense

excerpt from Baseball Playbook by Ron Polk


One of the keys to successful team defense is the proper execution of the fundamentals of bunt defense. Many times in baseball the winner of a close game is the team that can handle this play properly, due to the fact that the sacrifice bunt play by the offense is generally attempted in the last few innings of a close game that will be decided by a run or two.

So that the players will feel comfortable with the plays that they run when the offensive team attempts the sacrifice bunt, a coach should never confuse his club by having too many bunt defense plays in the team playbook. Some of the important aspects of bunt defense that need to be covered are:

  1. Coach-team communication-Anytime there is a possibility of a sacrifice bunt, all players must look to the dugout for the play to be called by the head coach. The plays can be called by flashing a number or by another visual sign by the coach to the defense. lf no sign is given, the defense will not change from their normal position on defense but must still be prepared for a possible bunt. The coach will make the decision on what bunt defense play to call by analyzing what the offense might do taking into consideration: the score; the inning; the batter's offensive capabilities; the runners on base; and the opposing coach's offensive tendencies in past situations that call for a bunt. After making the decision that a bunt defense will be called, the coach must then decide what type of defense to run: one that honors the possibility of the hitter swinging away; an early break bunt defense where the defense is prepared to handle only the bunt; or a pick-off on a bunt defense to try to get a baserunner on the play.
  2. Throwing the ball to the hitter-whenever the likelihood of a sacrifice bunt is high, and a bunt defense play has been called by the coach, the catcher should call for a fast ball. The pitcher should attempt to throw a high fast ball in the strike zone since this is the toughest pitch to bunt and put on the ground. lf there is doubt as to whether the hitter will bunt, the pitcher should throw a pitch down in the strike zone. lf the first pitch is a ball, and the batter has squared around to bunt, then the next pitch should again be a fast ball belt high in the strike zone. You never want a pitcher throwing a fat high fast ball for the hitter to drive past the infielders if he gets the hit sign from his coach. when the pitcher gets behind in the count, there is more of a chance that the batter will get the "green light" to swing away at the next pitch.
  3. Priority system-It is very important that a priority system be set up so that if two or more defensive players have a chance to field a bunted ball, the fielders know who has priority on the ball. whenever a player on defense can make the play on the bunted ball he will yell loudly, "I've got it". lf two or more players yell for the ball then the priority system will come into effect. An example of a priority system would be:

    Position Priority Over
    Pitcher First Baseman Only
    First Baseman No One
    Catcher Pitcher and First Baseman
    Third Baseman All Players
    Second Baseman (early break) No One
  4. Catcher calling play-since the catcher has the entire play in front of him, he should have the responsibility of making the decision as to what base the ball will be thrown too. He would do this by yelling loudly one of the following four commands: "three-three" (third base); "two-two" (second base); "one-one" (first base); "hold-hold" (don't throw to any base). If any player is instructed by the catcher to throw to the forward base (third base if there are runners at first and second base: second base if there is a runner at first base only), and then the player fumbles the ball, he should then throw the ball to the first baseman or second baseman to retire the hitter at first base. lf the catcher fields the bunted ball, he should yell out which base he is throwing to so that the fielder at that base is prepared for the throw. lf a defensive player is instructed by the catcher to not throw the ball to any base "hold-hold", he should always fake the throw to first base in hopes that a runner might take a wide turn at a base and a play can be made on him.

    The catcher must take into effect many things before deciding where the play should be made, and this decision must be vocalized when the ball is on the ground and before the defensive player is actually fielding the ball. If done too early it could cause a problem in making a bad decision. lf done too late it would make for a very difficult play for a player fielding the bunted ball and trying to position himself for the throw to a particular base. In the early part of a game (first through the sixth inning of a nine inning game; first through the fourth inning of a seven inning game), the catcher does not want to gamble on the forward runner unless he is sure that the out can be made. The catcher has got to allow the defense to get a sure out in this situation. Late in the game he can gamble on getting the out at the forward base as long as there is a play at that base.
  5. React to the batted ball-All defensive players must react first to the batted ball and then to the bunted ball unless an early break bunt defense has been called. lf a batter squares around to bunt when the pitcher begins to go into the stretch position, there is a good chance that a fake bunt slash, fake bunt slash hit and run, or a push bunt might be attempted. Unless :he early break bunt defense is on, no defensive player should ever make any break toward a base until he reads the down angle of the ball off the bat on a bunt. Any movement by a defensive player prior to the actual bunt must be toward the plate, ready to move left or right if the hitter swings away. On an early break bunt defense, the defensive players involved must be sure to get themselves under control when the batter makes contact with the ball so that they can make a play on a hard bunt or push bunt.
  6. Fielding the throw at a base-Whenever a throw is made to a base to retire a runner on a bunt attempt, the fielder must be sure he looks first for the bad throw from the player fielding the bunted ball. There is always a tendency on a player's part to rush the throw to retire a runner on a bunt attempt, especially if a play is being made on the forward runner. Many times the ball will be thrown off balance or rushed so badly that the thrower drops his arm slot causing the ball to tail away from the player trying to make the play at a base. Once the ball is in the air. and the fielder at the base has control of the base with his feet, he can stretch for the throw if he feels it is necessary to get the out on a close play. lf it will not be a close play, then there is no need to stretch for the throw. All fielders need to be cautioned to not stretch for a thrown ball until it is in the air to prevent the poorly thrown ball from getting past the fielder due to his inability to make an adjustment from the stretch position. Once stretched out to field a thrown ball, the fielder severely restricts his ability to range right or left for a ball. It also makes it impossible to field a thrown ball that sails high. Once the ball is caught, the fielder needs to keep his head up for a possible play at another base. lf the ball is poorly bunted, there is always a chance for a double play. lf the bunt defense play is properly executed and the communication done quick enough, there should never be a situation where a fielder is not set at a base to field a thrown ball. Throwing to a moving target on a bunt play is a very difficult play for the thrower and receiver.
  7. Fielding the bunted ball and making the throw-The coach must impress upon his players the importance of getting at least one out practically every time on a sacrifice bunt attempt. The only exception would be those times late in the game i.vhen the defense has to gamble on a forward runner. All other times an out has got to be made to prevent the offense from having a big inning. A defensive player must get to the bunted ball as quick as possible so that he does not have to rush himself through the actual fielding of the ball. He must look the ball into his glove making sure that he does not start moving his feet to make the throw to a base until the ball is in his glove. Once he fields the ball, he must pivot quickly and step in the direction of the throw that is to be made to a base. The only time a fielder should ever throw off-balance in a bunt play is when there is not time to set up and throw, and he is gambling on a runner at a forward base late in the game. A wild throw to a base must be prevented in a bunt defense situation. When throwing to a base where there is quite a bit of distance involved (generally second base), the fielder needs to possibly take an extra step (crow-hop)to assure some velocity and accuracy on the throw. A fielder should always sacrifice quickness for control and velocity on the throw to a base making sure that he keeps his elbow up on the throw in order to prevent the ball from sailing away from the fielder at a base. When the fielder feels that there might be a play on the lead runner, he should approach the bunted ball anticipating that play. He can then adjust if the catcher does not call that play.

On the following pages you will find various bunt defense plays for runners at first only, and runners at first and second base. There are numerous ways to defense the bunt, but the ones detailed in the Playbook are the ones that are basic and easy to learn. A coach can incorporate them into his practice schedule by sitting in the dugout, flashing the bunt defense sign and then follow the execution. The outfielders can be the baserunners on base, reacting full speed to the forward base when they read down angle on the bunted ball. One of the coaches can stand behind the catcher as the pitcher delivers to the plate and roll out all types of bunts forcing the defensive players to make all types of plays. He must inform the defense whether they are early in the game or late in the game, so that the catcher can make the decision as to whether or not to gamble on the forward runner or not. All defensive players will alternate on each bunt play.

About the Author...

Legendary Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk, the winningest coach in any sport in the history of the Southeastern Conference, enters his third season as UAB's volunteer assistant coach in 2010. Polk came to UAB in the summer of 2008 after announcing his retirement from the Mississippi State program.

Polk has helped UAB to back-to-back winning seasons in his two years with the Blazers, including a 30-win campaign in 2009. He has helped the Blazers to victories in eight of 16 Conference USA series since his arrival, including 2009 series wins over both fourth-ranked Rice and eventual College World Series participant Southern Miss.

"It has been a personal highlight in life for me to be able to learn under Coach Polk in the 80's at Mississippi State and now work with him again at UAB," head coach Brian Shoop said. "I have more respect for Coach Polk than any coach in college baseball. No one has had more of an influence on our game and on countless young coaches, including myself. Our players love him and appreciate the sacrifices he makes to be involved with the UAB baseball program. We are better in so many ways because of Coach's decision to donate his time to Blazer baseball."

In July 2009, Polk was inducted into the College Baseball Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA) Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1995. In 1988, he was presented with the Lefty Gomez Award, the highest award given by the ABCA.

Polk retired from Mississippi State in 2008, following his 29th season at the school. He ranks seventh all-time in NCAA career head coaching victories.

Polk concluded his 35-year career as a head coach with a career record of 1,373-700-2 (.662). In his career, which also included stints at Georgia Southern (1972-75) and Georgia (2000-01), Polk led his teams to a total of eight College World Series appearances, five SEC championships and 23 Regional appearances. He is one of only three coaches in college baseball history to take three different programs to the College World Series.

Polk mentored current UAB head coach Brian Shoop when the Blazer skipper was on his staff at Mississippi State from 1983-89. The Bulldogs won three SEC championships and made one trip to the College World Series during that time.

At Mississippi State, Polk recruited and coached some of the game's all-time greats, including Major League standouts Jeff Brantley, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Bobby Thigpen and Jonathan Papelbon. Those are just a few of the 185 of his former players that have signed professional contracts and a few of the 23 that have played in the Major Leagues.

A three-time National Coach of the Year, Polk held the position of Assistant Athletics Director for Special Projects at Mississippi State following his team's College World Series run in 1997. While in that position, Polk spearheaded a successful campaign to expand Polk-DeMent Stadium in Starkville. He returned to coaching at Georgia in 2000, where he spent two years before making the move back to Mississippi State for his final seven seasons.

Perhaps Polk's most talented Mississippi State squad ever was the 1985 version. That club finished the year 50-15 and was SEC champion before going on to appear in the College World Series. The 1985 Bulldog club featured future major league stars Brantley, Clark, Palmeiro and Thigpen.

In his 35 years as a college baseball coach, Polk produced 35 All-Americans and more than 75 All-SEC performers.

In addition to Polk's work in the collegiate ranks, the Boston, Mass., native has completed seven tours as a member of the coaching staff for the USA National Baseball Team, twice serving as head coach. Two of the teams he coached represented the United States in the Olympics.

Polk has also impacted the college baseball world through his literary work. He has authored "The Baseball Playbook," the nation's leading college textbook for baseball, and is featured in the book, "6 Psychological Factors for Success: America's Most Successful Coaches Reveal the Path to Competitive Excellence."


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23 Aug 2016

By Ron Polk - Baseball Playbook
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