Across the Seams: The DH Needs to Be Universal

Jimmy Nelson was having a great 2017 on Sept. 8. He was one start removed from blanking the Washington Nationals over seven innings with just three hits allowed and 11 strikeouts, and he was looking great, keeping the Chicago Cubs scoreless over five innings with seven strikeouts.

In fact, Nelson looked like he was finally fulfilling his potential as a top prospect. After struggling for three seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers, things were finally starting to click. He had a 3.49 ERA and a 10.21 K/9. And then, in the fifth inning, Nelson hit the ball hard to the outfield, rounded first, and then ran back, diving into first base to beat the throw from the second baseman.

And when he dove into first base, he hit his shoulder awkwardly. He ultimately left the game early, and an MRI revealed he had a partially torn labrum and a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder, ending his 2017 season one strikeout shy of the 10th 200-strikeout season in Brewers history. He also missed the entirety of 2018.

Why? Because for some antiquated, strange, pointless reason, the National League has decided to subject pitchers to an increased risk of injury by making them hit. And it’s stupid. It makes absolutely no sense, and it’s why the designated hitter needs to be made universal.

Pitchers are terrible at hitting. I mean, I think we can all agree on that point, right? In 2018, collectively as a position, pitchers slashed .115/.144/.148. That’s not including Shohei Ohtani, who spent a lot of time as a DH and is kind of an outlier when it comes to pitchers hitting. But even if you include Ohtani, that only bumps up the position’s slashline to .126/.160/.176. Still pretty terrible.

One of the reasons so many pitchers are bad at hitting is that many of them don’t bother practicing it. And honestly, why would they? What’s the point? Madison Bumgarner doesn’t get paid what he gets paid because he’s a decent-hitting pitcher he gets paid to be an ace pitcher. He could walk up to the plate every day and watch the ball go by (à la Daniel Cabrera) without taking the bat off of his shoulders, and he would still be just as important to his team as he is today. So they don’t work on becoming better hitters because pitching is why they’re there. Hitting is just an occupational hazard of playing in the National League.

So why do we do this? Why do we subject pitchers to a significantly increased risk of injury so that they can get a hit 12 out of every 100 at-bats?

Because, you know, tradition.

When you start to question why pitchers in the National League hit, half the time people start acting like the Major League Baseball is Anatevka and they’re all Tevye shouting “TRADITIOOOOOON!” But here’s the thing, Zero Mostel: Tradition isn’t a good defense — it’s tantamount to saying “just because” — and it’s a tradition based on an idea that pitchers are complete players, able to pitch and hit, which hasn’t been true for about a century.

Having pitchers hit doesn’t make sense from a risk-benefit standpoint. Pitchers are already at an increased risk of injury, so why subject them to an even more increased risk? What’s the benefit?

“Well that’s how the game is supposed to be played!”

The rules of baseball were not etched on stone tablets and given to Abner Doubleday as he descended Mount Sinai; they’ve changed a ton over the years.

 

 

And let’s not forget that back in the 1870s, pitchers threw the ball wherever the batter wanted them to. The point is, the game of baseball looks way different than it used to. All of these changes have taken place, yet the pitcher still continues to hit.

“But the strategy!” you might say. “What about the double switch?”

My dad likes to tell a story about a time he and my mom went to see a Nationals game. At one point, the play stopped, and one of the managers came out and started talking to the umpire. My dad looked at my mom and said “Look! LOOK! It’s the most exciting play in baseball! The whole reason the DH can’t exist in the National League! The double switch!”

To which my mom just gave a puzzled look as a player ran out onto the field and another player ran off the field.

And that was about it.

Look, I mean if the double switch really revs your baseball engine, good for you. The double switch was really clever when it was first implemented. Now, I think most little leaguers could probably explain it to you if you asked them. But if to you the thrill of the double switch is worth watching Bartolo Colon flail at a fastball, then I guess go for it.

Typically this is the point in the conversation where an anti-DH person says the following: “Well if you’re going to replace the pitcher with a designated hitter, then why don’t you replace the catcher with a designated fielder! We don’t want to risk our catcher getting hurt! Or any of our good hitters for that matter! Designated fielders for everyone!”

Honestly, that’s a pretty hard-core slippery slope fallacy right there. Just because we’re making one change doesn’t mean that we have to take it to the extreme. The responsibilities of a pitcher are unique and not really comparable with those of a hitter.

Don’t take my word for it. As former MLB player and umpire George Moriarty wrote in 1929, “Pitching is a distinct science, and so is batting. … The two departments are extremes and require entirely different perspectives.”

We’ve had the DH implemented in the American League for more than 45 years now, and the league hasn’t fallen to pieces for spitting in the face of the baseball gods with a sin as evil as the DH. It’s worked just fine.

In essence, I really just don’t see a viable argument for making pitchers hit and subjecting them to a significantly increased risk of injury just so they can collectively bat .120.

And it’s not like complaining about pitchers hitting is a new thing. In 1928, John Heydler, the president of the National League complained about it too: “We have pitchers in our league … that when they come to the plate, they are absolutely a dead loss; gum up the play; gum up the action,” he said. “Pitchers are absolutely useless as hitters.”

I’m with you, John. I’m with you. And it’s about time the National League got with you too.

Ben Palmer

Lifelong Orioles fan (which can be....painful at times) and a Ravens/Wizards/Terps fan. I also listen to way too much music and watch way too many movies.

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Comments


Ben Palmer

I think you could definitely do that, and I think it would make slightly more sense than what we do now, but I also think it’d be decidedly less fun than having a DH

theKraken

I think that making pitchers hit and run the bases is what makes them able to claim that they are athletes. Pitchers are weird and egocentric enough already because they don’t understand anything other than pitching (which is why they are generally bad announcers and coaches)… Similarly, I am not a yuge fan of players that only hit and hobble their way to first base. I don’t care for the strategy either way. I don’t have real strong opinions either way, but I like the compromise that we currently have. After all, meaningless, fun debates like this are just further entertainment related to what is already a game.

Russell

I’m curious how many pitchers actually get hurt every year on average. It’s your basis for the argument and the Jimmy Nelson example is definitely an extreme one but is it the rule or an anomaly. I think the “strategy” side would make this argument and I’d love to hear your rebuttal.

Ben Palmer

I wouldn’t say it’s the entire basis for my argument, but it’s definitely a big one.

The data is a little old at this point, but a study of MLB injuries from 2002 to 2008 found that pitchers 34% more injuries than position players did. Pitchers also took up more of the total days on the DL (62.4% of all DL days) during that study period than position players did (37.6%).

Now, yes, that data is old, but I don’t think injuries have seen a significant decrease since 2008. That study saw a 34% increase in injuries between 2005 and 2008, so I think it’s reasonable to assume that that trend has continued, at least to some extent.

It’s certainly continued in Tommy John surgeries, which have increased significantly over time and have peaked in the 2010s. Since Tommy John surgeries much more often than not happen to pitchers, I think you can extrapolate that pitchers are ending up on the DL more.

Source for the injury study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21709023

Source for the Tommy John data: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-first-medial-ulnar-collateral-ligament-reconstruction-was-performed-on-a-Major-League_fig7_298909145

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