ORLANDO, FL (July 20, 2020) – History will be made sometime Thursday night (July 23), weather and the COVID-19 pandemic permitting.
As Major League Baseball finally starts its truncated season July 23 – following the longest and most tumultuous offseason in baseball history – fans will see a first when they turn on their TV sets to watch the defending World Champion Washington Nationals host the New York Yankees: a Designated Hitter in a National League stadium.
Talk about irony. Forty-seven years after the Yankees’ Ron Blomberg stepped into the batter’s box and into history books as MLB’s first-ever Designated Hitter, another Yankee could become the first to appear as a DH during a regular-season game in an NL ballpark.
What National League owners couldn’t do in nearly 50 years, the coronavirus did in four months. As part of the agreement between team owners and the Major League Baseball Players Association to begin the season after an almost four-month delay, the NL will adopt the DH for the first time. According to the March agreement, it’s only for the 2020 season, and the 60-game schedule will seem like a trial run.
But it’s long past time that MLB made the DH permanent throughout baseball. For almost a half-century, the two leagues have operated under different rules regarding the Designated Hitter. Having the DH in the American League, but not in the National League makes absolutely no sense. That’s like the NFL having only one-point conversion attempts after touchdowns in the National Football Conference and two-point tries in the American Football Conference. Or, like the NBA having three-point field goals in the Eastern Conference but not in the Western.
And since the MLBPA in all likelihood would reject any discussion of eliminating the DH in the American League, the only solution is for the NL to adopt the Designated Hitter for good.
Stop the Illusion
Because we need to stop pretending that most pitchers can hit.
Yes, there are pitchers that can hit. For instance, the Cincinnati Reds’ Michael Lorenzen has a .247 career batting average; and the Houston Astros’ Zack Greinke, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Mike Leake, and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer all have career batting averages above .192. (The Anaheim Angels’ Shohei Ohtani is excluded here because he is considered a “two-way player,” who pitches and also serves as a position player and DH.)
But, for every one of those pitchers who can handle a bat, there are dozens of others whose primary advice from their managers as the pitcher walks to the plate is, “Just don’t hurt yourself.”
Pitchers like the Miami Marlins’ Elieser Hernandez and Jose Urena, the Detroit Tigers’ Ivan Nova, and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Charlie Morton – all of whom have career batting averages of .076 and below. Cincinnati’s Cody Reed has yet to get a hit in his four seasons in the majors – he’s struck out in 19 of his 25 official at-bats.
In 2018, the collective batting average for major-league pitchers was .115, the lowest ever (and 10 points below the previous record of .125 in 2014). So, your team’s pitcher has about a 1-in-9 chance of getting a hit. Sounds like a good time to run to the refrigerator to get a cold drink.
And, if I’m a Chicago Cubs’ fan who paid almost $150 for a ticket, plus another $16 or so for a hot dog and beer, I wouldn’t be too thrilled to see pitcher Jon Lester – who has a career .107 batting average and once went hitless in 66 consecutive at-bats – feebly flailing away, with the bases loaded and two outs; especially after the Cubs’ eighth-place hitter had been intentionally walked to get to the pitcher.
Why Pitchers Can’t Hit
Some of the best hitters in the game started their professional careers as pitchers. Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, and George Sisler most readily come to mind.
But, most pitchers simply don’t get an opportunity to bat, or even practice hitting. The DH is used in every league from high school up to the majors, with the exception of Japan’s Central League. Until this season, the National League has been an island in a sea of Designated Hitter-leagues.
The problem is particularly acute in the American League, since those pitchers have had to bat only in games played in National League stadiums during interleague play and in the World Series. Take, for example, the Rays’ Morton, who has a .075 career batting average. For the first nine years of his career, he pitched in the National League. But, he’s been in the American League for the past three seasons, and officially has been to the plate just 11 times total in that period. He has one single, and has struck out seven times in those plate appearances.
Hitting a baseball is a difficult task; some say the hardest in sports. It’s even more difficult when learning to do it playing in the major leagues – and, as with the Reds’ Reed, when you’re only averaging seven at-bats a season. Some of pitchers haven’t swung a bat since high school, or maybe even before. That’s like electing to the White House someone with no political experience at all. (Wait, we’ve done that. Depending on your political party affiliation that may or may not be working.)
AL Adopts ‘Designated Pinch-Hitter’
Prior to 2000, when they merged into one Major League Baseball organization, the American and National leagues operated as separate entities, each with their own commissioners, offices, umpiring crews, etc.
In the late 1960s, maverick Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, unhappy that the American League was getting beaten at the box office by its rival circuit, lobbied for adoption of a “designated pinch-hitter”, thinking that improved offense would draw more fans. The American League adopted it on a three-year trial basis in 1973.
According to an article at that time by Joseph Durso of the New York Times, the National League voted against the change in the early 1970s, with league president Charles S. Feeney saying, “We like the game the way it is.”
Finley was proved correct: attendance improved. Convinced that the DH helped attract more fans, the American League made it permanent in 1976.
Interestingly, where it not for a fishing trip, the NL well might have adopted the DH, too.
The league’s general managers met in 1980 to vote on the measure, with a simple majority of the 12 teams needed for approval. Four teams were in favor, five against, and one abstained. Of the remaining two teams, the Phillies were thought to be in favor, and the Pirates’ owner had instructed his GM to side with however the Phillies voted, according to Durso’s article.
When the time came to vote, a late provision had been added that said that the DH would not be implemented for at least another year. That change cast uncertainty on Philadelphia GM Bill Giles’ part, so he tried to contact team owner Ruly Carpenter, who was on a fishing trip.
According to the story by Durso, a longtime sportswriter and editor with the Times who passed away in 2004, Giles was unable to contact Carpenter – this being before the days of cell phones. So, Giles, undecided on how to vote, abstained. Pirates’ GM Harding Peterson, following orders, sided with the Phillies, and also abstained.
As a result, the measure failed, 4-5-3. Had Giles been able to reach his owner, the DH likely would have passed, 6-5-1. The measure did not come up for a vote again, until MLB’s attempt this spring to save the 2020 season.
You Love It or Hate It
People either hate the DH or love it. If you want to start an argument between baseball fans, just bring up the Designated Hitter. It’s a battle of the traditionalists – who think pitchers, like the other eight players in the lineup, should be required to bat -- vs. the progressives – who think the DH adds needed offense to the game, and practically salivate over the idea of having an extra bat in lineups at hitter-friendly NL stadiums like Denver’s Coors Field, Milwaukee’s Miller Park, and Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park.
But, there should be no debate. Major League Baseball, which has a well-earned reputation for being slow to change and for being reactive rather than pro-active, shouldn’t wait until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement after the 2021 season to determine the future of the Universal Designated Hitter. Take the bat out of pitchers’ hands now, for good.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.
Photo credit: Daiji Umemoto/Unsplash.com