Most of my time as a fastpitch softball hitting instructor is spent teaching hitters how to drive the ball to – or over – the fence. Yet at some point I will also have each hitter work on laying down bunts.
Now, you might be surprised at that statement given some of my past post about bunting. But those relate to the sacrifice bunt, especially the sac bunts many teams lay down automatically with a runner on first and no outs. (The short version, if you don’t want to follow the link, is it’s a waste of an out.)
The reality is bunting, especially bunting for a hit, still has an important place in our sport. Which means when you’re called upon to do it, you’d better be able to get the bunt down.
That’s why I am so surprised at how poorly it seems to be taught these days. When I ask a hitting student to bunt I see all sorts of easily correctable flaws that are going to prevent success.
Since I doubt any coaches or parents are purposely training their players to fail, I can only conclude that they simply don’t know any better. I’m also pretty sure that, as often happens, they are simply passing along whatever bad techniques they were taught 20 or more years ago.
So to help with this issue I’ve put together this little guide. Follow these tips and you’ll find your players will be better equipped to lay one down when the time comes.
Stance (and getting into it)
A good bunt starts with a stable platform. After all, it’s a lot easier to hit a rapidly moving object if you’re not fighting to maintain your balance.
The mistake many young hitters make (and coaches don’t correct) is how hitters get into their bunting stance. As in the hitters will pivot on the balls of both feet to get turned forward.
The problem with that is the feet will then be in a straight line, one behind the other, instead of spread out side-to-side. To correct that issue, have the hitters pivot on the ball of the back foot and the HEEL of the front foot.
Now there is a little space between them, giving hitters the stability they need to work the bat more effectively.
BONUS TIP: If you are bunting for a hit, do not tell the hitter to move to the front of the box. That’s a dead giveaway as to what your strategy is, which really takes away the element of surprise you’re probably counting on.
Yes, I know moving up in the box improves the angles and gives the bunt a better chance of staying fair. But you don’t have to be Hall of Fame coach Margie Wright to figure out if the hitter moves up she’s bunting. At which point the defense should move their third baseman to 10 feet away from the plate so she can try to catch the ball in the air for the out – or a double play.
The most commonly taught grip for bunting seems to be to move the top hand up to the top of the handle and then have hitters pinch the bat between their thumb and index finger. This is a grip that comes from baseball – especially old-time Major League Baseball.
There are several problems with this grip, not the least of which there is a huge disparity in the hand strength between a 25 to 40 year old man and an 8 to 22 year old girl. Plus, -3 wood bats are much heavier and denser than -10 composite or aluminum bats, so they can absorb the impact of the ball more effectively.
Then there’s the issue of a softball weighing at least 30% more than a baseball (6.5 to 7 oz. versus 5 to 5.25 oz.). Combine a weaker hand, a lighter, less dense bat, and a heavier ball and you’re going to end up with a lot more balls that get deflect foul.
A better, more effective grip is to grab the bat with all the fingers – the same way you hold it to swing for the fences, just further up the bat. Actually, I prefer both hands up the bat, but the bottom hand can be as close or far away as the hitter is comfortable.
To prove its effectiveness, have a hitter hold the bat in the pinch grip and then use your hand to smack the barrel of the bat. It moves back a lot.
Now try the same thing with a full-on grip. You’re more in danger of hurting your hand than moving the bat much.
But doesn’t that put the fingers at risk of getting smashed by an inside pitch you ask? Not really, as you’ll see in the next sections.
Another common mistake I see with hitters is that they try to use the sweet spot of the bat to make contact with the ball when they bunt.
I get it. That’s where they’re taught to hit the ball when they swing away so it’s a natural assumption.
Yet as I tell them, if their bat costs $400, $350 of that cost is in the sweet spot. It’s designed to send the ball as far as it can, and a lot of research and development money goes into making that happen.
But you don’t want the bunt going far. You want it to roll a few feet away from the catcher and then stop so it’s harder for the pitcher and/or infielders to field.
To get that effect, you want to use the $10 part of the bat, i.e., the end of the bat. That’s a major dead spot (as anyone who has felt the bees in their hands after making contact there on a full swing can tell you).
Hit it off the end of the bat – all things being equal – and the ball won’t go nearly as far. It’s also the point that’s farthest away from the top hand’s fingers, so if you’re using the end of the bat the top hand is in no danger of being hit. It’s a win-win.
Then there is the issue of how to make contact with the ball.
Many fastpitch softball hitters, even good ones, tend to punch at the ball with the bat as it comes in. Again, you don’t have to be Hall of Famer Margie Wright to figure out that punching at the ball will add to the power of the impact, making the ball go farther – even if you hit it with the dead end.
Instead of punching at it, hitters should pull back slightly to “receive the ball.” By giving a little they soften the impact and cause the ball to come off the bat gently.
You can explain this to players who play other sports by talking about how they receive a pass. Soccer players pull their foot back; hockey players pull their sticks back; basketball players pull their hands back as the ball comes in. At least they should.
Of course, this is easier said than done with bunting. Everything players have been taught with hitting to this point revolves around driving the bat into contact.
Pulling it away as the ball comes in will be very foreign to them. But with practice they can learn to do it.
One of the best ways to practice this is to draw a circle in the dirt, or lay down some ribbon or a Hula Hoop a few feet away from them and have them try to get the ball to go into (and stay) in the circle. They’ll figure out how to soften it really quickly.
Bat placement in the zone
Untrained hitters will often try to cover the entire width of the plate with their bats. That’s fine if the pitch is outside. But if it’s inside it’s going to be really tough to hit an inside pitch with the end of the bat.
Instead, have them cover roughly half the plate. That way if it’s inside they can pull the hands in a little. And if it’s outside they can stab the bat out to get the outside pitch, with the added benefit they will probably put it up the first base line instead of hitting it at the charging third baseman.
It also helps keep their top hand safer. As you can see, in this set-up if the ball is coming for the top hand it’s also coming for the torso, so the hitter has extra incentive to get out of the way.
You’ll also notice the bat head is higher than the handle. That’s to help hitters hit the top of the ball.
A flat bat, or worse one where the barrel is lower than the handle, is most likely to end up in a pop-up. You don’t want that, especially if you have a bunt-and-run on with a runner on base.
An upward angle, even a slight one, will make it more likely your hitters will get the ball on the ground quickly when it’s hit, and will make it easier for hitters to control where it goes.
Where to direct the bunt
Some of this is a matter of the level of play you’re facing. If your team’s opponents are not particularly skilled, any sort of bunt anywhere is likely to result in success.
A bunt up the third base line may be most effective, too, because it’s the longest throw. (A tip of the cap to Coach JD Koziarski for reminding me of that.)
At higher levels of play, however, the third base line is the worst place to drop the bunt. Third baseman make their bones on their ability to field a bunt and throw out the runner, and they practice that skill constantly.
Pitchers and first basement do not usually spend that kind of time practicing to field bunts, however. So the better strategy is to bunt either at the pitcher (and hope she chucks the throw into right field) or up the first base line where no one may get to it – especially if the first baseman is playing back.
Bunting is still necessary
Yes, all the emphasis for hitting these days is on exit speeds and launch angles. But there is still a place for bunting in our sport, so it’s important to teach optimal technique.
And that’s not just for the rabbits or average hitters either. EVERY hitter, even the big boppers, should know how to bunt well.
You don’t want to find out in the middle of a tight game that your best hitters are a disaster at bunting. And for their sake, someday they may be at a practice where the team is divided into two groups and they compete against each other to see which one gets the most bunts down. You don’t want any of them to drag their teams down.
So teach them all how to bunt properly. It’ll open up new offensive possibilities.