MESA, Ariz. – For a moment, it seemed as if Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta wouldn’t get a chance to prove his bat again.
The question of whether Major League Baseball could still implement the universal designated hitter for the 2021 season resurfaced a couple weeks ago. But Opening Day came, and pitchers took up their bats at National League ballparks across the country.
“Taking BP at Wrigley Field and having a chance to stand in the box again against some really nice arms is a challenge,” Arrieta said this spring, “but one that we're looking forward to.”
Bringing back NL rules for one season – the next Collective Bargaining Agreement is expected to embrace the universal DH – has raised safety concerns for pitchers who haven’t hit in at least a year.
In the Cubs’ season opener against the Pirates, Pittsburgh’s Chad Kuhl was the first pitcher to step in the batter’s box. He chopped a ground ball to second base and – in a close play at first after a double-play attempt – hit the bag and went tumbling up the line.
The play was reminiscent of Cubs pitcher Kyle Hendricks’ spring training single, which included a collision at first base. Both pitchers popped up unharmed. But those moments reminded those watching of one reason the universal DH has such wide support.
Arrieta won a Silver Slugger Award in 2016, the same year he and fellow pitcher Madison Bumgarner lobbied for spots in the home run derby. And even Arrieta was “on the fence” about which way he wanted the 2021 rules to go.
“I was on board either way,” he said. “I will say that it was kind of nice (last season) to not have to worry about leading off an inning or being on the bases for an extended period of time. But to go back to hitting is something that I'm pretty excited about.”
Cubs pitchers are embracing the return of NL rules with a friendly competition.
“We’re trying to figure out the categories,” Arrieta said last month. “It’s probably going to be bunts, hits, home runs, walks, and a combination of a couple other things to keep it fun, keep it competitive and see where we stack up at the end of the season. I’m hoping that a couple of our other guys will be able to hit some balls over the fence. It’s always fun to see a pitcher hit a homer.”
The odds aren’t good for the other Cubs starters. The other four rotation members combine for exactly zero career home runs.
“He’s got a Silver Slugger, and it’s just not fair,” right-hander Trevor Williams joked of Arrieta. “I have zero extra-base hits. He was like, ‘We should do a first-homer prize.’ And I was like, ‘That’s a donation from me.’”
In fairness to Hendricks, he was the only starting pitcher to record a hit in spring training this year. (Before that at-bat, he said he warned the catcher, “It’s been a while, man.”) So far in the regular season, Hendricks holds the bunts lead among pitchers, after laying down a sacrifice bunt in Thursday’s season opener.
Next up, Arrieta. He’s scheduled to take the mound against the Pirates Saturday for the second game of the three-game series.