The extreme infield shift is a bit of dare, and Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart is the kind of guy who takes that dare. "It's great to get any kind of hit," he says, "but when they're telling you that you can't hit the ball that way -- to beat that is a feather in your cap a little more than just a normal hit."
He has bunted against the shift four times: against the Mariners in 2016, when he got a hit; against the Phillies in April of this year, when he got a hit; against the Brewers in May, when he got a hit; and against the Diamondbacks last July, which was a mistake.
It takes less than half a second for a pitch to travel from the mound to the plate, about as long as it takes the pitcher to stop his body from the incredible force he has just put his it through. But Zack Greinke, looking up in the middle of his delivery and seeing Barnhart about to bunt, defies that force: In that less-than-half-second period, he halts all of the momentum that would otherwise carry him away toward right field, and launches off the mound in the opposite direction. Before the bunt has even been issued, Greinke has chosen a line to it, a route deep enough to intercept a hard bunt, but not so deep it won't allow him time to throw out Barnhart.
Greinke takes eight steps -- those eight steps have to encompass both an acceleration from stop and a deceleration to stop, but in Greinke's fourth and fifth steps you can see him reach a real, almost full sprint. He's to the ball in time to square his body up in front of it, the way a second baseman would field a grounder hit just a step or two to his right. This lets him plant his back foot before he even has the ball, so he can immediately make a strong and balanced throw, rather than having to dip his upper body down to grab, rather than having to throw across his body.
The best baseball player in the world is Mike Trout. The best pitcher in the world -- well, let's say it's Max Scherzer. But this thing we identify as "baseball" is a social construct. In actuality, it's the sum of a million different isolated acts of wits and athleticism, and somebody is the best in the world at each of them. Javy Baez is the best tagger. Josh Harrison is the best pickle-escaper. Nobody can slide like Starling Marte.
And nobody in the world fields the bunt better than Zack Greinke.
Since the start of the 2015 season, there have been 1,953 bunt hits in the majors, and Greinke hasn't allowed any of them. There are 53 pitchers who have thrown at least 500 innings in that time, and every one of them who isn't Greinke has allowed at least one bunt hit -- and an average of seven apiece.
This season, nobody has even tried to bunt against Greinke. Not even once! This little detail is part fluke -- somehow, he has not yet faced an opposing pitcher with a runner on base and less than two outs -- but, also, part concession. Why would anybody try to bunt for a hit against Zack Greinke? It's dumb and pointless.
Just watch this dude field himself some bunts. Here we see famously fast Billy Hamilton trying to drag Greinke:
It's subtler, but we can again see Greinke adjust his deceleration mid-pitch when he sees the bunt attempt coming. This time he gets himself in position to rocket toward first base. Compare Greinke's speed off the mound to Noah Syndergaard's on this comparable Billy Hamilton drag bunt. When Hamilton makes contact with the ball, Greinke has already landed his right leg -- the follow-through leg -- on the ground. Syndergaard, by contrast, has his leg out in the air, at a 90-degree angle.
It's fascinating to watch Greinke's brain working in that less-than-half-second preceding each bunt attempt. When Barnhart showed bunt early, it was obvious he was just aiming to beat the shift, and Greinke took off that way. When Hamilton showed late, it suggested the sneaky subterfuge of a drag bunt, and Greinke took off that way. But look at when Curtis Granderson shows bunt late and with the shift on, and the intent isn't clear.
Greinke's machine whirrs, and instead of committing one way or the other, he takes a step in and gives a little hop. That little hop serves the same purpose as some infielders' pre-pitch hop, putting him in a position to spring in either direction.
Sometimes he does guess wrong. But when he does -- when he's already moving in one direction when the bunt goes the other -- he has kept his body squared so he can shift direction quickly. Watch his footwork as he tries (unsuccessfully, as it turns out) to steal a quick break against Wil Myers: It's side-to-side, as composed as a linebackers drill:
When he guesses right, though, he's a straight line:
My favorite Greinke fielding play is from September 2014, on a sacrifice bunt attempt with two on and nobody out. The video is choppy, but a single still image tells the story:
Compare that to, say, this one, by some normal pitcher doing a normal thing in the same two-on, nobody-out bunt situation:
You can't blame Nate Jones for his body going exactly the wrong direction. That's what the body wants desperately to do. It takes a combination of awareness, will, balance and athleticism to invert the momentum of the pitch. It takes a kind of genius.
On May 10, 2014, Greinke allowed a bunt single to, of all people, Matt Cain. The cause was Greinke's own brilliance: In a sacrifice situation with a runner on second, Greinke gets off the mound so aggressively, charges the ball so hard, reaches over and snares it with such unlikely conviction, that his third baseman Chone Figgins never saw it coming. When Greinke turns to flip to third and get the lead runner, the base is totally unoccupied. For a split second, he seems to consider simply running over for an extremely rare 1-unassisted at third base, but the out isn't there. He turns and tries desperately to throw out Cain at first, but the out isn't there, either. It goes down as a hit.
It is, in some ways, the most impressive physical act we've seen in these highlights. Of course, baseball isn't a one-skill sport, and not all skills are equally valuable or constantly valuable. Here, Greinke's brilliance costs him. Cain would retire before Greinke would allow another bunt hit.
I suspect, in the decades between Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani, there were others who could have starred both ways if they'd been allowed. Most players aren't allowed to -- they get funneled to either the mound or the batter's box by the time they're 18, and we never get to see. If I had to bet on somebody who could have done it, I might pick Greinke.
When Greinke was in high school, Perfect Game reported that he "does just about everything other than run at the major league level. He can hit, hit with power, field and he has one of the best arms in high school baseball. ... A very good shortstop." The Royals scout Cliff Pastornicky has said Greinke "could have been a shortstop, a third baseman, a catcher, a pitcher."
Since 2013, there are 101 pitchers who have batted at least 100 times, and Greinke's OPS+ ranks second. He has six career stolen bases, twice as many as any active pitcher. You can daydream about what he might have done with three or four years of development as a hitter in the minors.
But it's these plays on bunts where you really peek into that other dimension, the one where Zack Greinke stayed at shortstop and became a Hall of Famer that way. Or else stayed at shortstop and on the mound, and became a Hall of Famer that way.
In late July, the Diamondbacks face the Rangers in interleague play. Rougned Odor, the Rangers second baseman, might be better than anybody in the world at bunting against the shift.
Most bunts with the shift on this year:— Daren Willman (@darenw) June 10, 2018
Rougned Odor 10
Leonys Martin 3
Matt Carpenter 3
Tucker Barnhart 2
Didi Gregorius 2
Brandon Belt 2
Chris Davis 2
Will he try? Does he dare? If he does, can Greinke stop him? Baseball is a big, complex sport, but sometimes seeing two small skills smash into each other is worth the whole game.