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Despite it not being a priority strategy, the Mariners lead the American League in sacrifice bunts

Seattle Mariners' Dee Gordon watches his bunt single against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, May 1, 2018, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Scott Servais isn’t a fan of bunting. He made that clear since in his first days as manager of the Mariners. Like many people that follow the data and understand the difficulties of playing in the American League, he just doesn’t believe in giving another team a free out for 90 feet in every situation.

He’s not anti-bunt. He’s just not always-bunt.

Now in his third season as manager, that thinking hasn’t changed. And yet, the Mariners lead the American League with 17 sacrifice bunts on the season. They have the third most in all of baseball behind the Reds (23) and Cubs (21).

How did that happen? Well it’s a combination of many things, including the roster attrition due to injury, the types of hitters doing the bunting, the number of close games the Mariners find themselves in and players simply doing it on their own.

“Some of them are signs we put on and some of them are not,” Servais said. “We have sacrificed bunted a little more than I would like to do it. But it’s personnel, where we are at in the lineup, the games have been very tight late. So we’ve done a little bit there. You are trying to get guys to move the runners along swinging the bat, but when it’s not happening, you need to put the bunt on. Some guys do it themselves. They see the value in it and they are more comfortable putting the ball down to move the runner. Our number is higher than I anticipated.”

Servais isn’t always pleased when a player bunts on his own in some situations. He understands how valuable outs are in a game and he isn’t a fan of just throwing them away for the sake of 90 feet. So if a player does bunt when he wants them to swing, a discussion usually follows.

“You want them to understand situations and what I’m thinking,” he said. “We have a sign that is just get them over any way you want. Most of the times if it’s a pitcher you aren’t comfortable with or not comfortable facing or he’s throwing a tough slider, okay, fine, you bunt. But if it’s a matchup that I feel pretty good about, then I would like the guy to swing the bat. Certainly if it’s a left-handed hitter up there with the opportunity to pull the ball and move the guy over and maybe you get a hit and have first and third and create an opportunity for a bigger inning. But if it doesn’t line up with what I’m thinking then you certainly talk about it right away.”

How many of the 17 bunts has Servais called for this season?

“Some of them, guys are actually bunting for hits that they gave sac bunts to them,” Servais said. “If we got (17), I’ve maybe called nine or 10 of them.”

Six players account for all of the 17 sac bunts. Dee Gordon leads the team with five sac bunts, but his bunting game is a little more different and advanced. He’s a prime example of a guy bunting for a hit and taking the sacrifice if it doesn’t work out.

Span to stay in left

The original plan when the Mariners acquired Denard Span in the trade with the Rays was to use him as a back-up centerfielder when Guillermo Heredia needed a day off. It seemed like a logical decision to slide Span from left field to center on those occasions since he had played center field for most of his career before being converted to a full-time left fielder with Tampa Bay this season. But on Tuesday night, Mitch Haniger got the start in center field in place of Heredia, while Span remained in left field.

“I talked early about playing Denard in center on the days Heredia isn’t out there, but just looking at it and where we are at it, he’s just been focused on left field all year,” Servais said. “And after talking with him a little bit with what he’s done in Tampa, we’ll leave him there. Hanny has played center a couple of times and there’s a good chance if the game is close that Guillermo Heredia will be in the game. Guillermo had played 14 or 15 in a row and with left-handed starters coming up the next couple of nights, we’d like to get him a few innings off.”