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Sports Authority

Coolican: Let the pitchers hit

| Friday, February 25, 2022

Major League Baseball announced earlier this month that the league would adopt a universal designated hitter for the 2022 season. The reasoning behind this decision is simple — pitchers are overwhelmingly bad hitters. According to FanGraphs, pitchers batted .108 last year. Even Madison Bumgarner — widely considered among the best-hitting pitchers in the league — owns a career batting average well south of the Mendoza line. 

Additionally, injuries to star pitchers are a risk — notably when Max Scherzer broke his nose while attempting to lay down a bunt during batting practice. Teams would prefer not to risk $130 million investments when the outcome of each at-bat is effectively predetermined. Competitive balance is also at issue. When National League teams play in American League parks, they often have to use a light-hitting utility player as they don’t have a true DH. On the other side, when AL teams play in NL parks they lose a valuable bench player unless their DH can also play in the field. In the World Series, these seemingly small factors can ultimately decide who wins the championship. 

These are all valid reasons, but the league is still making a mistake. The moments that a pitcher comes through when it is least expected are pure magic. Every baseball fan remembers where they were when Bartolo Colon hit his first career home run. Dae-Sung Koo doubled off Randy Johnson and scored from second on a bunt, after having looked hapless in his only previous career plate appearance. Bumgarner once hit two home runs on opening day. 

I could list plenty more examples, but they are admittedly few and far between. The anticipation is what makes these moments so special. Interestingly, despite what their name implies, designated hitters are not typically the best hitters on their team. Last year, designated hitters batted just 0.248 as a group, only slightly better than the 0.244 league average. The designated hitter with the most home runs last year? Two-way phenom and AL MVP Shohei Ohtani. 

When the pitcher is in the lineup, teams have to strategize much more carefully. They have to decide when to pinch-hit for their starter and have to get better at manufacturing runs. As a whole, baseball has trended away from the small-ball era. There’s nothing better than watching a low-scoring World Series game in which the two managers play a mental game of chess against the other. However, for better or for worse, analytics say that stealing bases and bunting are generally ineffective. Teams don’t value pushing a run across; they would instead prefer a player who hits a lot of home runs even if he strikes out a lot. 

One of the principal reasons why baseball is declining in popularity, especially among younger audiences, is the slow pace of play. There are myriad reasons for this — pitchers throw harder and batters are stronger, which leads to more home runs, more strikeouts and ultimately, fewer balls in play. There are other solutions to this problem, such as implementing and actually enforcing a pitch clock, but universalizing the DH will only exacerbate it.

Designated hitters are typically slow, aging power hitters, many of whom strike out at disproportionate rates. Home runs are certainly exciting, and the league is trying to encourage as many of them as possible. I, for one, however, find it much more exciting to watch Fernando Tatis Jr. try to score from second on a single than watching another Nelson Cruz home run. Of course, watching someone like Cruz hit is much more entertaining than watching a helpless pitcher merely wave at three center-cut fastballs. The adoption of the universal DH, however, will be the final nail in the coffin of the dying art of small ball. 

Additionally, if the league says pitchers don’t have to hit, what’s stopping them from implementing a second designated hitter for catchers? They are clearly the most important defensive position on the field and as a group they don’t swing the bat well. This is of course preposterous and would never happen, but then why should the league say that pitchers don’t have to hit? It only discourages players like Ohtani — perhaps the most globally popular player in a decade — from developing both skills. 

The MLB may think they are giving fans what they want, and perhaps they are. According to a 2020 informal poll from MLB Trade Rumors, nearly half of more than 12,000 respondents are in favor of a universal DH. Other sites with fewer respondents have estimated this number much higher. It is clear that a great number of fans are in favor of this proposal. It was also apparently one of the only things the league and the players association could agree on in this ongoing lockout. Perhaps then, this column is merely shouting into the wind, but I felt I had to write it. 

I actually think the system in which one league has the DH and the other does not is the right way to do things. The competitive advantages I mentioned above certainly play a role but are ultimately rather small. Instead, this allows one league the opportunity for strategy and finesse while the other provides a home for aging sluggers who still belong in the league, and fans get to experience both. It was a perfect system. 

The league shouldn’t just consider the fans it already has; it should consider potential new fans. Baseball has faced steadily declining support over the last two decades, as more and more young people turn to basketball and football. Bringing back the DH to the National League won’t fix this problem. We may have unknowingly witnessed the last plate appearance by a pitcher, and that is disappointing. The legacy of Bartolo Colon’s home run lives on, but we’ll never see anything like it again.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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