Swing and a Miss: Why Trying to Keep the Pitcher at the Plate is a Mistake

Corwin_2016Baseball By Kyle Corwin

A calm and collected Terry Collins stands with one foot on the top step of the Citi Field dugout as he tries to keep the sweat from showing. He’s been in this situation before, but never on this scale. He tries to drown out the “Dark Knight” chants from the 43,000+ that are growing louder with every pitch. He gazes into the distance as he contemplates leaving his ace in for an at-bat in a 1-0 NLCS game in which he has 15 strikeouts and needs just three more outs in the top half to seal the deal. A win sends them to the World Series, but anything less will result in a late-October viewing from the couch. As the New York Mets manager takes a deep breath, the home plate umpire glances over in his direction looking for what he expects to be a timeout signal and subsequent pinch hitter. As Matt Harvey steps into the batter’s box, he glances back at the man in blue with a grin on his face and jokes, “I’m a better hitter than you think.”

Terry Collins is one of the 15 NL managers who has to make decisions regarding pitchers at the plate.
Terry Collins is one of the 15 NL managers who has to make decisions regarding pitchers at the plate.

A future situation such as that might forever be enshrined in the hall of hypotheticals if Major League Baseball decides to bring the designated hitter to the National League. One of baseball’s hottest topics for debate, the proposition of eliminating pitchers as hitters has created a relatively strong division amongst the game’s community. You’ve got your old school folks and your new age fanatics, both of which make strong arguments for either side. The case made by those who want to keep the pitchers in the lineup is pretty simple: In its purest form, it’s how the game’s always been played. The fans who want to see the move made in order to rival the production in the American League want it to happen for that reason—to increase run scoring, and consequently, entertainment. While there are outliers in both eras (millennials who want to see it remain the same, and older generation fans who want it to change), the division remains relatively constant, and it’s only growing stronger as the speculation develops. Instead of holding on to the conventional way of doing things, we the fans of baseball need to recognize that the great game we see today has evolved greatly since its inception, and changing something like this maybe, just maybe, might make it even better.

An article from CBS Sports explains how the DH was adopted by the American League in 1973, and that offensive trends since then have shown that it would be in the best interest to make it a universal rule across Major League Baseball, given the overall decline. It goes on to put it into perspective in terms of the NBA, stating that it wouldn’t make sense for the Western Conference to have to play with a 3-point line and the Eastern Conference play without one. However, the difference in rules for the AL and NL has been accepted for over 40 years because it’s simply how things have been, not because it necessarily makes sense. Former Detroit Tigers pitcher C.J. Nitkowski explained via Fox Sports that the National League is at a clear disadvantage due to the fact its teams cannot compete with those in the American League when it comes to free agents because they cannot offer DH at-bats. Although we have witnessed teams with explosive offenses such as the Dodgers and Mets, all NL teams are forced to reevaluate and reorganize their rosters and lineups when it comes time for the most important part of the season: October.

According to Jesse Spector of the Sporting News, pitchers are simply hitting less. Only 47 pitchers had as many as two plate appearances per game in 2015. Therefore, not only are they receiving less of an opportunity to contribute offensively, the risk of injury remains a threat to big name pitchers who are receiving millions of dollars to throw a baseball rather than attempt to hack at one. For example, Adam Wainwright—the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals staff—tore his Achilles in April of last year as he was running to first after a routine fly ball. He missed every start thereafter with the exception of a short stint in September later that season. With the exception of a few relatively polished hitting-pitchers such as Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw, the reward just isn’t there. Additionally, according to Baseball Almanac, 1972 (the last year pitchers hit in the American League) was the last year the National League had a higher batting average. Since then? The AL has edged the NL every single year. Without stats such as these, it would be plausible to see the possibility of keeping the designated hitter away, but offensive production trends of the last 40+ years say otherwise.

Organizations in the National League are at another disadvantage when it comes to building a roster. An article written by Timothy O’Brien reminds us that American League teams allocate money to acquire nine quality bats, because it would be impossible to compete otherwise. The National League, on the other hand, are more inclined to invest their money into quality arms, since they only need eight hitters. A counterargument is that in interleague play as well as the World Series, the American League team would be at a disadvantage due to the fact that they would be forced to play their DH on defense if they want to keep his bat in the lineup. A great example of this would be David Ortiz playing first base in the World Series at St. Louis. It’s rather comical to think about one of the most immobile corner infielders trying to scramble his way to the bag to beat out a guy that runs a 3.3 down the line, isn’t it? Sure, but a guy like David Ortiz will be the one with the last laugh when he’s the one who steps to the plate in the ninth inning when it counts. Situations like these force the teams in the National League to step out of their comfort zone and adjust their lineups in a way that compels them to incorporate players who have limited at-bats because they served more of a depth purpose than anything else.

David Ortiz's value as a DH far outshines any effort made by a pitcher at the plate.
David Ortiz’s value as a DH far outshines any effort made by a pitcher at the plate.

In simplest terms, all the arguments and opinions on the issue come down to three options: Add the DH to the National League, remove the DH from the American League, or keep things the way they are. The latter is an option that will inevitably die out because, although baseball is a game that is reluctant to accept change, some modifications are unavoidable. The second angle Major League Baseball could take of removing the DH from the American League just doesn’t make much sense. ESPN’s Baseball Tonight ranked the top five designated hitters as of 2015, and they are as follows:

  1. David Ortiz
  2. Victor Martinez
  3. Nelson Cruz
  4. Adam LaRoche
  5. Chris Carter

Common sense tells you that replacing these fan favorites with a pitcher in the lineup would almost guarantee an uprising from the baseball community. Take David Ortiz for example. Big Papi is an icon (whether you like him or not) in the game of baseball, and he is the face of one of the most historic franchises and its city. Arguably the greatest designated hitter of all time, the third place vote recipient in the 2013 Boston mayoral election has been a mainstay in the club’s lineup since the early 2000s. Without his bat in the lineup, the Red Sox, as almost any opposing pitcher would tell you, become lesser of a threat at the plate. Force a pitcher in there? You’re almost guaranteed a few hell-hacks and a walk back to the dugout to mentally prepare himself for the thing he was paid millions of dollars to do: pitch.

Although I am a huge advocate for old school baseball and playing the game the way it’s always been played, I have to acknowledge that if we stayed completely true to that philosophy, baseball gloves would still look like padded pancakes, batters wouldn’t have helmets, and pitchers would still be throwing spitballs. Resistant to change, yes. Humans are designed to find comfort in routines and the status quo. But am I resistant to making changes to the game that will increase the entertainment value and consequently broaden the population spectrum of those who will be introduced to baseball? No. Adding the designated hitter to the National League will help fix the problem that many people who don’t like baseball and even those who do like it claim is the reason it’s boring: there’s not enough offense. Imagine opening up an additional spot in the lineup for a guy like a Cruz, Martinez, or Carter? Doing that would increase the home runs, the fireworks, and the fan traffic coming through the ballpark gates to watch their favorite hitter knock one out. Although he’s been known to have a cooky side to him on the baseball field, Nationals starting pitcher Max Scherzer put it best: “Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper?” I love the idea of baseball staying the way it is as much as the next guy, but there are changes that need to be made in order to elevate its popularity. I encourage you to consider this proposition too—unless you’re into wet newspapers and all that.

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