When Major League Baseball made the decision to expand the designated hitter rule to National League ballparks last year to lighten players’ workloads, the end of America’s national pastime in its original form appeared to be a fait accompli.
The facts: Few pitchers want to bat and even fewer managers want to watch them bat. It’s one of the rare issues that both the players and the owners, warring factions who otherwise couldn’t agree on today’s weather, appear to be in total accord. And after a pandemic-shortened season gave baseball commissioner Rob Manfred the perfect cover to enact a handful of experimental rules, it seemed inevitable that last year’s universal DH trial run would be carried over into perpetuity.
Yes and no. When the 2021 season gets under way on Thursday, pitchers will take their turn at bat in the National League, same as every year from 1876 through 2019. But since the universal DH is widely expected to be a fixture in the new collective bargaining agreement when the current deal expires in December, this season almost certainly marks the last time you will see pitchers take their hacks at the plate.
The thumbnail history: For more than a century, all major league managers were forced to write their starting pitcher’s name into the lineup card. Pitchers, despite their increased specialization over time, had no alternative but to bat their turn if they wanted to stay in the game. That all changed in 1973, at a time when American League was lagging in both offense and attendance. In a bid to boost both, the AL’s 12 team owners voted to use a “designated pinch-hitter” who could bat for the pitcher. The NL’s resistance to the gimmick meant for the first time in history, the two leagues would play under different rules. What started as a three-year experiment was soon permanently implemented by the AL (and nearly all minor, collegiate and amateur leagues below it).
As a result, the National League game places greater strategic demands on managers, who must decide when to let a pitcher bat or remove him for a pinch hitter. Those decisions open the possibility of double switches, moving players around in the order to delay the substitute pitcher’s turn at bat. The differential in tactics can be most clearly seen in relative cleanliness of American League boxscores in each day’s paper compared to their wonderfully chaotic NL counterparts.
The general idea, in theory, is all National League players are required to contribute on offense and defense. And contrary to perception, not all pitchers are completely worthless at the plate. Baseball’s centuries-spanning annals are dotted with pitchers who could bat: early-period Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Ken Brett, Mike Hampton, Carlos Zambrano and dozens more. These days, Arizona’s Madison Bumgarner (met 19 lifetime home runs), Houston’s Zack Greinke (a career .225 hitter) and Pittsburgh’s Steven Brault (whose .333 average in 2019 was the seventh-highest ever by a pitcher) can give respectable accounts of themselves. The truth is, egter, most pitchers are such hopeless cases that teams have all but abandoned encouraging them to work on batting.
That doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch them try. There’s a certain levity to be found in watching world-class athletes flail helplessly, overmatched and humbled by the very specialized craft that’s brought them to the majors. And when a pitcher does manage to deliver at the plate, it tends to be memorable. After all, one of baseball’s essential beauties is going to a game and seeing something you’ve never seen before, even if you’ve been going your entire life.
Consider that only once in the last 47 years has a pitcher gone yard in the World Series. And while Phillies right-hander Joe Blanton conjured a moment of majesty back in 2008 that’s still talked about in Philadelphia today, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he admitted he did it with his eyes closed.
This generation’s most famous piece of hitting by a hurler came early in the 2016 season when the New York Mets portly starter Bartolo Colón, two weeks shy of his 43rd birthday and a career .084 hitter, became the oldest player to hit his first major league home run when he launched a 90mph fastball over the left-field fence at San Diego’s Petco Park. The Mets commentary booth erupted like the team had won the World Series.
The paucity of these thunderbolts only enhances their impact: Cardinals talisman Bob Gibson’s solo shot in Game 7 of the 1967 World Series; Phillies idol Steve Carlton’s longball off Don Sutton in the 1978 playoffs; Cubs fireballer Kerry Wood’s dinger over the Wrigley Field ivy in Chicago’s doomed Game 7 of the NLCS.
Aren’t these moments, sparse as they may be, worth the thousands of failures between them? To purists who are invested in watching the game as it was invented, sure. But the case for adopting the universal DH, increasingly bolstered by sophisticated arguments from the sabermetric community en die occasional injuries to star pitchers, has made this camp an ever-shrinking minority.
The traditionalists, present company included, have been resigned to the universal designated hitter for years. At last, the end is near. So enjoy this season-long stay of execution. When it’s over, for better or worse, baseball will never quite be the same.