One time, Albert Pujols bunted.
If we include minor-league play, he’s bunted twice in his professional career. But in the major leagues, the major leagues where he’s played for 12.5 years and hit (as of July 10) 489 home runs, 523 doubles, and on average 1.198 hits per game, the major leagues where his career batting average is .321 and he hits twice as many doubles as double plays, Albert Pujols has bunted once.
It was in his rookie season, of course. But what exactly happened? Why did he bunt?
Theory #1: Pujols was an untested rookie.
Strike one. Albert Pujols bunted on June 16, 2001. When the baseballing world awoke that day, he was a rookie batting .354/.417/.654, with 20 home runs. He’d already been intentionally walked three times. (Compare to our latest Rookies of the Year: Mike Trout was intentionally walked four times in all of 2012; Bryce Harper, zero.) Pujols had 11 hits in the previous seven games, including four homers.
Now, this was only two and a half months of gameplay, a small track record. But if you’re savvy enough to realize that ten weeks is not enough time to assess a player’s quality, you’re probably also savvy enough to realize that this is not the type of player who should bunt.
Unless, of course, it’s a critical situation in the game.
Theory #2: Pujols was bunting at a time when the Cardinals really needed a bunt.
Strike two. Albert Pujols bunted in the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Cardinals ahead 6-3. In the top of the same inning, the White Sox had scored two runs, but St. Louis’ win probability was a healthy 96% when Pujols came to the plate. After he bunted, their odds of winning were still 96%.
Now, in some ways it was a textbook bunt situation. The Cardinals had two men on base. They also had zero outs. No outs and two on is a good time to bunt. But they also had a three-run lead in the seventh. And Albert Pujols was batting cleanup. He bunted.
Theory #3: Pujols was facing a pitcher against whom he might have trouble.
Strike three. The White Sox did bring in a new pitcher to face Albert Pujols, a thirty-year-old right-hander named Sean Lowe.
Now, Sean Lowe was pretty good against right-handed hitters. In 2001, righties hit .233 off him. They didn’t strike out much, but they didn’t walk much either, and they made unusually weak contact. We can suppose this because when lefties put balls into play against Lowe, their batting average was .308, but righties’ batting average on balls in play against Lowe was only .243.
On the other hand, the Sox didn’t trust Lowe that much. According to Baseball Reference, he was placed into low-leverage situations more than half the time in 2001. In 17 of his 34 relief appearances, the Sox were already losing–as they were on this day, losing by three runs with only six outs left. (That’s 17 of 34 in a year when the team had a winning record.)
Oh, and there’s another thing. Albert Pujols was killing right-handed pitching; when 2001 was over, his AVG/OBP/SLG against righties was .342/.408/.624.
No, the White Sox brought Sean Lowe into the game not as a magic bullet, but as something simpler: a Band-Aid. Ken Vining had allowed two runners to reach base without getting the inning’s first out. They simply needed somebody new.
Theory #4: Bonus Dan Szymborski theory: the element of surprise.
I asked Dan Szymborski why he might have Pujols bunt in a FanGraphs chat. His reply: “It may be a good surprise play if he’s confident he can get it down and the 3B is super deep or is Mark Reynolds.”
Strike four. Pujols bunted successfully on the second pitch; the first was a foul bunt attempt, terminating the element of surprise and any super-depth on the part of the defense. The third baseman was Joe Crede.
Theory #5: We’re out of theories.
Let’s set the scene, shall we?
The game is in St. Louis. As the fans sit down after their seventh-inning stretch, the Cardinals are winning 6-3. They’re six outs from victory, with odds of 95%, and their 2-3-4 hitters are due up. Chicago reliever Ken Vining starts the inning by walking third baseman Placido Polanco on four pitches. Next J.D. Drew hits a line drive single to right field on a 1-2 pitch, and Polanco advances to second.
This brings up cleanup-hitting right fielder Albert Pujols. The White Sox replace the flailing Ken Vining with Sean Lowe, a middle relief righty who induces weak contact. (Within a month, Vining will pitch his last major-league game.) The Cardinals have their best hitter at the plate: he’s a rookie, but he’s batting fourth, already has 20 homers, and sees two runners on base with no outs.
On the first pitch, Pujols bunts foul. On the second pitch, Pujols bunts fair.
It works, technically. Polanco and Drew advance, and Bobby Bonilla steps up to the plate. This was the 38-year-old Bonilla’s final season, and at the time of this game, his triple slash was a pitiful .217/.321/.391. (It would get worse, but remember, this is who Pujols bunted in front of.) Bonilla has had four home runs all year, one of them the day previous.
Bobby Bonilla is issued the second-to-last intentional walk of his major league career. (Yes, there was another one; he drew three IBBs that year.)
This brings up left fielder Craig Paquette, staring down loaded bases. He delivers a two-run single, putting the Cardinals up 8-3. Sean Lowe gets Edgar Renteria and Mike Matheny out to end the inning. The Cardinals win the ballgame by the same score, and in the ninth inning the last White Sox hitter to go down is a pinch-hitter making his major-league debut, named Aaron Rowand.
So Why Did Pujols Bunt?
Pujols tried to bunt twice, once hitting the ball foul. This suggests that it wasn’t Albert’s idea but his manager’s. If Pujols was the kind of player who liked to bunt spontaneously, he might have done it again by now.
Why did Tony La Russa have Pujols bunting? His team up by three runs, late in the game, two runners, no outs, best hitter at the plate. Perhaps he was overly concerned about Sean Lowe’s ability to get righties out, but there weren’t any outs and a double play would still leave a baserunner. Perhaps he recognized a classic bunting scenario, but Pujols was his best hitter and Bobby Bonilla, with a slugging percentage .263 lower, may have been his worst. Maybe he wanted to spring a surprise, but then came the foul bunt.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives don’t turn up any hits for “Pujols bunt.” One blog post about the bunt groundlessly speculates that Pujols was improvising. Googling “why did Pujols bunt” in quotation marks yields zero hits. And, looking at the evidence we have, there’s no rational explanation. I’ve hand-written Tony La Russa a letter asking about this, but that was over three months ago and there’s not much chance he writes back.
Aaron Rowand played for eleven seasons, was an All-Star, and won two World Series. His entire career has taken place since the last time Albert Pujols bunted. That’s interesting, but not surprising. What’s surprising is that the only time Pujols bunted, there was no reason for him to do so.
Albert Pujols bunted once. We may never know why.