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Washington defends his use of bunts

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- You want to get Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington fired up on an early spring training morning? Ask him why he bunts so much.

The skipper put on a full-throated defense (in Washington's colorful style) of his use of the sacrifice bunt to a jury of media members on Sunday morning, sounding a lot like a passionate preacher and a convincing attorney.

The Rangers have 307 successful sacrifice bunts since Washington became manager in 2007. No team in the American League has more.

Washington is well aware there are critics to his bunting approach. Heck, I’ll admit that I think Washington bunts a little too often. But a difference of opinion is to be expected when you try to weave analytics into tried-and-true baseball methods.

So when will he bunt?

"When I feel it’s necessary, not when the analytics feel it’s necessary, not when you guys feel it’s necessary, not when somebody else feels it’s necessary," Washington said. "It’s when Ron Washington feels it’s necessary."

And the manager has his reasons, which he went about explaining on Sunday.

This isn’t a case, however, of Washington ignoring the numbers. He knows the numbers. From Baseball Prospectus:

• Expected runs with no outs, runner at first: 0.83

• Expected runs with one out, runner at second: 0.64

• Expected runs with no outs, runner at second: 1.0

• Expected runs with one out, runner at third: 0.89

Those numbers are hollow without context, and for a manager like Washington, who goes on feel and gut more than most, context is everything.

The bottom line: Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre are paid to drive in runs. So the manager is going to do all he can to put them in position to do that, even if it means sacrificing an out to get a runner one base closer to home.

"I look at the opposing pitcher, the guys at the plate and the situation and I’m saying, 'How can I give us an opportunity to get this runner where I want to get him?'" Washington said. "If I’ve got the right person at the plate, I’m going to make him bunt.

"If it’s a situation where we have runs already and we’ve got a decent lead early in the game, I’ll probably let him hit. But if we’re in a situation where the game is close and I have a guy up there that I don’t feel with this pitcher up there that’s able to stay inside the baseball and do what he has to do, then I’m going to make him bunt. It’s simple."

If Cliff Lee or Felix Hernandez is on the mound, he’s more apt to bunt in the first inning and try to get a run early than he would be if a No. 3 pitcher was out there.

That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Washington has Elvis Andrus in the 2-hole in the lineup because he likes his ability to move runners.

Since Andrus arrived in the big leagues in 2009, he has more sac bunts (78) than any other player. But part of the reason Andrus bunted in certain situations rather than swing away last season was his inconsistency in making contact. The manager provided the key number on that one.

"Do you know that [Ian] Kinsler got thrown out nine times on hit-and-runs that Elvis swung through and missed?" Washington said. "Nine. I trust Elvis to make contact. [It] just so happened he wasn't Elvis consistently last year."

Andrus will likely get plenty of chances again this season with Fielder and Beltre right behind him in the lineup. But the fascination on Washington’s penchant for bunting misses an important point: trust.

"It’s not 80 percent certain that the guy swinging the bat is going to be able to hit the ball to the right side," Washington said. "But if I got the [Jurickson] Profars, the [Geovany] Sotos, Elvis, the [Leonys] Martins at the plate, they should be able to drop a bunt and get [the runner] to third base. My percentages for me in that situation go up by them squaring it and bunting it, rather than me allowing them to swing. Because how many times have you seen [them] roll over?"

So how do those players build that trust so they get to swing more often? It starts right now with all the drills and situations the coaching staff is putting them in to see if they can produce. Then it has to translate to the pressure of games, too.

The Rangers are emphasizing situational hitting like crazy this spring. They do it when players are in the cages hitting. They do it with competitive games at the end of workouts.

Texas had chances last season. It just didn’t cash them in.

"Our weakness the past couple of years has been situational hitting,” Washington said. “[That’s] having runners in scoring position with less than two [outs] and not being able to get them home; having runners at second base with nobody out and haven’t been able to move them; having runners with the infield in and not being able to get the ball to the outfield; having the infield back and not being able to play pepper with the infield. Those are the little things that killed us the past two years.

"Yeah, our offense went stale, but had we been able to execute in those situations, it would have made a big difference."

No question about that. It’s why Washington continues to preach its importance. It’s why hitting coach Dave Magadan singled out Martin the other day in the situational-hitting game when he popped up a ball with the infield back and a runner at third. Martin tried to do too much.

"I need to do what the situation tells me," Martin said Sunday. "That’s what we’re trying to do. I’m working very hard on it."

The more they execute, the more likely the manager will let them swing away to attempt to move the runner, rather than rely on the bunt. And if the middle of the order drives in the runs as planned, won’t the discussion about the frequency of Washington’s bunts dissipate?

In the end, this still comes down to the players getting the job done. They’re busy working on it on the back fields in Surprise.

ESPN Stats & Information's Rachel Eldridge contributed to this report.