When Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright suffered a season-ending injury earlier this year running the basepaths, it opened up a fresh round of debates on whether the National League should join the American League in adopting the designated hitter and not having its pitchers bat.
But Cubs manager Joe Maddon — a supporter of pitchers hitting despite spending his entire career in the AL before coming to Chicago — brought up this point in addressing the DH discrepancy on Saturday: Plenty of hitters, especially young ones, don’t like being a DH.
Maddon said during his days as a coach on the then-Anaheim Angels, his team tried to rotate in a group of 20-something outfielders — Darin Erstad, Garrett Anderson and Jim Edmonds and Tim Salmon — between playing the field and being a designated hitter. And there was pushback when one of those guys’ turn to DH came around.
“They hated it,” Maddon said. “Nobody wanted to DH. ‘It’s your day to DH.’ ‘I don’t want to.’ When they’re that young they don’t want to sit around, they want to play and I understand that. The more I thought about it, the more I got it. It’s hard to do that and the more you sit around and think about it, they harder it is to do it well.”
The transition to being a full-time hitter and not playing the field isn’t always an easy one, even for longtime veterans. Fielding provides a good distraction from hitting, and without it, players are often left with large swaths of time with little to do during a game. Being a designated hitter, then, can become more of a mental struggle than a physical one.
And for the designated hitter to become universal and add 15 more job openings? That’s not something Maddon thinks is good idea.
“The DH is a really difficult position to acquire a really good player,” Maddon said. “It’s normally a very expensive position and there’s not many guys that could sit around for a half hour and come up and give you a good at-bat consistently on a nightly basis. So it’s a tough animal to find.”
Maddon may be overstating things here — of the 17 primary designated hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2014, only five rated as below average hitters (by Fangraphs’ wRC+ statistic). But the players on that list — David Ortiz, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham, Billy Butler, Nelson Cruz and Albert Pujols, to name a few — are mostly veterans. It’s rare to see a young player be a full-time designated hitter.
While in Tampa, Maddon said he had a young B.J. Upton learn how to play multiple positions so he wouldn’t have time to overthink his at-bats. By moving him across the infield and outfield, during games he would have to stay engaged while playing defense, which was part of the organization’s plan for developing him.
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Maybe Kris Bryant would make a good designated hitter in his early 20s, but from the way Maddon argues it’d seem like a risk to have him only hit while he learns opposing pitching and the routine of being in the majors.
Maddon, too, thinks the game is better for fans when pitchers hit. A recent poll showed 55 percent of baseball fans like having pitchers hit, and from a strategy standpoint, Maddon believes it’s more entertaining.
“I think if you’re a fan, you really want to get fans engaged, you’d like to believe the strategy of a National League game exceeds that of an American League game to the point where you should be able to capture some interest regarding building a new fanbase,” Maddon said. “So I’d prefer us to go all no DH as opposed to all DH, if it came down to that.”