Pitchers batting is dumb and the DH should be universal
Adam Wainwright is likely done for the year after injuring himself while batting. Max Scherzer is likely going to miss his next start after jamming his thumb while batting. But hey, it was totally worth it. Because when you have a couple of guys who are a combined 117-for-622 for their careers at the plate, you have to have them take their hacks, right?
OK, that’s unfair. Everyone knows that Wainwright and Scherzer aren’t in there for their hitting skills. They’re on the hill every fifth day, when healthy anyway, because they are two of the best pitchers in all of baseball and they play for National League teams. Hell, the two of them could have been a career 0-for-622 and they’d still be on the mound and taking their hacks at the plate precisely because of that. The rules say that in the NL the pitchers bat so that’s what they have to do.
But it sure is a dumb rule. A positively stupid and senseless rule. A rule that, if we were starting anew today, we’d never adopt. But here we are, and there sit Wainwright and Scherzer, lost to their teams, one for a year and one for a little bit, because of the farce that is the National League rule.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am not so naive, sensationalistic and alarmist to say that the NL rule is dumb simply because Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer got hurt. No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I appreciate that Wainwright and Scherzer’s injuries -- and Chien-Ming Wang’s and any other injury which happened to a pitcher while batting -- were freak occurrences. They could’ve happened while they were fielding their positions or messing with frozen hamburger. Two bad instances like this are not, in and of themselves, justifications for scotching the rule even if they are the impetus for thinking about the rule.
No, the NL rule should be scrapped because pitchers can’t hit a lick, there is no rational basis for not having the DH in both leagues and, as such, the risks to NL pitchers while batting, however small, are unacceptable.
As for the first point, we can agree that pitchers can’t hit, right? They’re almost all awful. Even the ones who we laud for being “good hitters” suck. Zack Greinke is usually the first one mentioned. His career line: .214/.263/.325. That’s an OPS+ of 62. That’s worse than Mark Lemke’s career line. It’s roughly the same as Rey Ordonez. It’s only a little bit better than guys like Mario Mendoza and Ray Oyler who are historic punchlines for their futility at the plate. And this is the best we can do with pitchers batting. This is the guy we look at and say “hey, for a pitcher, he’s dangerous!”
So, why do they bat? Because they’ve always batted. Because that’s what they did for the first 100 years of the game in both leagues and have continued to do so in the NL. It’s the American League rule and the designated hitter which are somehow unnatural. Which are aberrations. Which are abominations, even.
I actually like that my friend Chris used that term -- “abomination” -- by the way, because it gives up the whole game for most anti-DH people. The word “abomination” is a religious term. And adherence to pitchers batting is more religion than it is reason. Based on beliefs, history and faith rather than reason and objective evidence. People who like pitchers batting tend to lean heavily on the idea that they did back when the game was invented. As if baseball, its setting and its rules as they were in the 19th century were given to us by Jehovah Himself, carved into stone, infallible. Every bit as infallible as all of the other rules of baseball which always have and always remain inviolate. You know, like the one that put the pitching rubber 45 feet from home plate and the one in which a baserunner is out if you throw the ball at him and hit him. Rules which are every bit a part of the original essence of the game as nine players facing off against nine players with nary a tenth to be seen.
“OK, so maybe the rules do change over time when it makes sense to do so,” my pro-NL rule friends may say, “but not in such a gimmicky way as we see with the DH.”
That’s a word you hear tossed around by anti-DH people a lot. “Gimmick.” As if it’s just a fad. Something like pet rocks and mood rings and other inventions of the 1970s, that most unfortunate of decades. Except that the DH has been a bit more enduring than that.
It’s been longer since the advent of the DH to today than it was between Babe Ruth’s called shot and the advent of the DH. My friend Chris Jaffe points out that the first DH game is closer in time to the last four Cubs NL pennants than it is to the present. It’s older than the lifespans of Akry Vaughan, Edgar Allen Poe, Glenn Miller, Malcolm X, Amelia Earhart, Che Guevera and Stonewall Jackson. The DH began eleven days before Federal Express issued its first package. Based on how long it’s been around, to call the DH a “gimmick” today, in 2015 is the same as calling commercial broadcast TV a “gimmick” in 1987. The thing is established at this point.
Which isn’t to say “hey, it’s here, you’re stuck with it.” It’s to say that if you want to argue against the DH -- or any other baseball convention which has been around for pushing a half century -- you have to do better than merely decry it as new and gimmicky and not natural and somehow against the spirit of baseball. You have to assess it on its own merits, not merely say it’s wrong because it hasn’t been around since Alexander Cartwright walked the Earth.
One non-tradition-based argument against the DH is “OK, fine, replace the pitcher with a DH. Then why not replace a shortstop with a DH? A second baseman? Why not have a whole team of designated fielders?” That sort of argument sounds compelling, but only for a second. In reality it’s the classic slippery slope fallacy. The belief that, because a step has been taken in one direction there is no way we could reasonably stop the “slide.” With the DH we have a couple of things arresting the inexorable slide into Designated Damnation. That clear delineation between your average hitting pitcher (terrible) and your average hitting position player (substantially better). You have a 42-year lab experiment in which every organized baseball league in the world not named “National” and “NPB Central” has utilized it without there being greedy calls for more designated positions. You have the limitation in roster size that can and has easily accommodated that extra hitter but cannot reasonably accommodate nine extra designated players. There’s a clear argument for replacing pitchers with a DH and nowhere close to a compelling argument to replace anyone else.
We see this in practice too, by the way. Major league teams have all but abandoned teaching their pitchers to hit. They just don’t see the point in it anymore. They can’t do it and, even if they play in the NL, they’re willing to punt pitchers’ hitting ability if it means more time for them to work on what they’re really there for: pitching. Teams still care if glove-first shortstops hit, though. It’s still important because they still get results by doing so.There’s no slippery slope here. There’s a clear, bright line between how pitchers’ batting is presented and how poor hitting by glove-first players or poor fielding by bat-first players is treated. The former has been totally abdicated. The latter has not.
So, if the DH isn’t some crazy fad, if it actually works and if it’s not the road to damnation, what’s the argument for keeping the NL rule? At least one not based merely on tradition? That it allows for pinch hitting and double switching. The old NL strategy thing. Intrigue. Cunning, etc. As if those are riveting events at the heart of baseball. And as if there isn’t pinch hitting in the AL. But sure, we’ll give the NL rule people that. It’s their aesthetic choice -- heck, it’s my aesthetic choice as an NL guy -- but it that’s all it is. An aesthetic choice, on equal footing with the aesthetic choices of people who don’t like to see .109 hitters flail ridiculously and ineffectively. Who, while they enjoy laughing at Bartolo Colon taking a swing at a pitch as much as the next guy, maybe think that the sideshow element of that spectacle isn’t worth it.
And certainly isn’t worth it when you think about the risks. About how the two favorites in the National League this year just lost pitchers to injuries that never needed to happen. Injuries that, yes, could’ve happened to a position player hitting. Or could’ve happened to Wainwright and Scherzer while they were on the mound. But injuries which, in those cases, wouldn’t have been sustained in the pursuit of a pointless exercise. In an effort to keep a couple of 117-for-622 hitters on the field and to keep the tradition of 19th century baseball intact.