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To bunt or not to bunt? That is the question

So I'll get to tallying up the "Guess the Rotation" votes (around which there seemed to be some good discussion), but I also think there are a couple of things worth bringing up from last night's win over the Astros.

First of all, though Dmitri Young was clearly the difference (not to mention some fine pitching from Mike Bacsik, Saul Rivera and Chad Cordero), I built the game story around Barry Larkin. An odd decision, to be sure, but Larkin had some interesting things to say when I talked to him pregame. He's obviously a guy who has some strong opinions, and he's honest about them. One thing that didn't make the gamer that I thought was interesting was something that came from Larkin's visits to some of the minor league clubs:

"I honestly believe that there needs to be a clear direction in how these guys are supposed to approach hitting," he said. "I think we have some good, knowledgeable baseball people here, but I think there's some inconsistencies with what people are teaching here at one level from the other. I think that kind of frustrates players."

I know this is a point of emphasis for player development chief Bob Boone, but it certainly takes time to implement. I'll give you some more Larkin stuff in the minor league notebook tomorrow, because he worked with Esmailyn Gonzalez and Ian Desmond and others over the past few weeks.

Anyway, onto the other point that's worth discussing: Zimmerman's bunt single last night. My StatsPass account is down right now (and believe me, it's like being without air, so if I start choking later in this post, you'll know why), but to the best of my recollection, Zimmerman had 11 bunt hits a year ago. I'm pretty sure only noted speedsters such as Juan Pierre and Corey Patterson had more bunt hits than he did a year ago.

Last night, in the sixth, he laid down the first of this season (though he had tried and bunted foul a couple times). It moved Ronnie Belliard to second, got him to first, and set up Dmitri Young's three-run homer. It brings up an interesting discussion: Should the No. 3 hitter, the guy who is supposed to produce the most runs and drove in 110 a year ago, be doing this?

There are some differing viewpoints here. Start with Frank Robinson. This quote was taken from a notebook I wrote last August on the subject. Zimmerman had nine bunt hits to that point.

"That shows you that he is thinking up there and understands what he has to do at that time to try and help the team win," Robinson said.

Frank, however, was never afraid to bunt. He'd do wacky things like bunt with his No. 3 guy in the first inning, stuff like that. Drove some SABR freaks crazy, just taunting them, taunting them, giving away outs, aaaaaaaahhhhhhh!!!!!! (Bring back any nightmares, anyone?)

Now, talk to Manny Acta, Robinson's replacement. Manny's not a SABR freak, but he's aware of the numbers, and he's aware of Zimmerman's role on the team. I asked Acta about Zimmerman's bunt last night.

"Right now, it looks good," he said. "I'm not a big fan of that, especially with my third hitter, especially with a guy like him that has a potential to hit an extra-base [hit] and a home run any time. ... If it works, fine. If not, then I'll let him know."

It worked last night. Zimmerman clearly likes it as part of his game.

"They're almost free hits," he said. Later, he continued: "You got to pick your times to do it and peek down there. If he's backing up and you think you can do it, then go for it."

Look at last year's stats. Zimmerman had 176 hits. If 11 of them were bunt hits (and again, I'm going off memory here (damn you, StatsPass!)), then he had 165 of the other variety. He hit .287 including the bunt hits. Take those at-bats away, and his average drops to .274. (Obviously, that's not completely fair, considering he would have likely had hits of the normal variety in some of those at-bats, but I'm tryin' to make a point here, so cut me some slack.)

All of this is a way to point out a couple of things. Acta believes that Zimmerman has a lot to learn about the game, about his role in the lineup, about what is expected of a player of his caliber in his position. He is supposed to be the guy who can change a game, not a bit player. Acta would like him to act like that.

But it also demonstrates what's being asked of Zimmerman, who we tend to forget is all of 22. Say he was David Wright on the Mets. He wouldn't be asked, at that age, to hit third. Maybe he'd be hitting sixth, where bunting would be more normal/expected. It's an interesting conflict, getting Zimmerman to rise to the role for which he's needed on this team vs. allowing him to develop naturally, regardless of his position on this team.

Some of you were already touching on this in comments last night, and it's also dealt with in the podcast. But while I tally up those Guess the Rotation votes, I ask you: Should Zimmerman bunt (selectively, of course), or should he swing?

By Barry Svrluga  |  July 17, 2007; 10:49 AM ET
 
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