Regardless of how you feel about the designated hitter rule, today it appears inevitable that we are witnessing the twilight of pitchers hitting in the major leagues. Pressure has been mounting for years to relieve National League pitchers of their contractual obligation to swing the bat, and as baseball stares down the barrel of yet another CBA negotiation, it has been speculated that securing a universal DH will be a talking point in the discussions. The idea is not without its merits — despite the entertainment value, pitchers are slashing a pathetic .105/.143/.135 in 2021, and just swinging a bat has already led to avoidable injuries to aces Jacob deGrom and Zac Gallen. Despite more than a century of tradition, it seems that the writing is on the wall for pitchers hitting in MLB.
As such, it’s also apparent that this season could mark the final time that a Silver Slugger trophy is awarded to a pitcher in baseball history. We are on the verge of the end of an era, and whether you’re pro-DH or take a more traditional stance on the subject, it’s a storyline worthy of recognition. Who will take home the final trophy, and be crowned the last best hitting pitcher in baseball?
Through a third of the 2021 season, the crop of contenders for the last pitchers’ Silver Slugger has begun to take shape. And while there’s still plenty of games left to be played, a few names have already gotten out to considerable leads in the race. Perhaps the most interesting case is that of frontrunner Huascar Ynoa, who despite jumping out to a commanding lead with a pair of early home runs, may see his margin eroded while he spends time on the injured list after fracturing his hand punching a dugout bench in frustration. With a projected IL stint of at least two months, Ynoa will be hard-pressed to make up any lost ground, especially with how few plate appearances even National League pitchers receive in a given season. It will be interesting to see if he can power his way back into the conversation once he returns, as he’s shown more power at the plate than almost any of his competitors, as evidenced by his 0.765 slugging percentage that’s best among all pitchers.
With Ynoa out of the picture for the coming months, all attention turns towards Jacob deGrom. As if it wasn’t enough to simply be the best pitcher on the planet, deGrom is also now apparently its best hitter as well. With a batting average just under .400, deGrom is well on pace to double his career-high of 15 hits in a single-season hits in 2017 and moves to the front of the pack. After years of underwhelming and occasionally non-existent run support, it appears deGrom has taken matters into his own hands with three driven in.
Rounding out the top four are Atlanta’s Max Fried & the Cubs’ Trevor Williams, respectively. Fried has so far shown he’s more than a free out at the bottom of the lineup card, consistently helping push his offense forward with five sacrifice bunts to go along with his four base hits (including a double!). Williams has been less effective, with four singles and a walk propping up a 0.665 OPS.
The Dark Horses
Productivity takes a dive after the top four, though it’s still early enough for any of these starters to make a run at the hardware if they can string together some good at-bats later on in the season. There’s Joe Ross, who has put together a deceptively productive start to the season, with six hits and three RBI to pad a not-horrendous (for pitchers, anyway) 84 wRC+.
Adrian Houser joins Huascar Ynoa with a share of the pitcher home run lead, with two long balls of his own. With Ynoa out, one more charged swing has the potential to catapult Houser up into the top tier, provided he can steal a single here or there to keep his ratios from completely cratering.
Jack Flaherty looked to have a shot at the Silver Slugger until he strained his oblique in a start against the Dodgers earlier this month. Now, with reports the ace will be sidelined until at least the All-Star break, Flaherty’s odds of recouping his lost time and making a real run at the award look increasingly slim.
And of course, there’s Madison Bumgarner, who is as likely as any pitcher to go on a tear and club a handful of home runs over a given week. With two Silver Sluggers already adorning his trophy case, Bumgarner is looking to bring a fitting end to the era of pitchers hitting in MLB. Never count him out, even as he currently spends time on the injured list with shoulder inflammation.
The Long Shots
Bringing up the rear of the pack are, well, the other guys. These pitchers have an outside shot at best of making a run at the top spot, but their work is definitely cut out for them. Heading this group is the confounding Luis Castillo, who actually appears to be in the middle of both his best hitting season as well as his worst pitching season to this point in his career. Silver linings, right Luis?
Clayton Kershaw, meanwhile, is perhaps losing his last chance at the one piece of hardware that has eluded him to this point in his career thus far. He’s won an MVP, multiple Cy Young awards, and even a Gold Glove, but has yet to be recognized for his hitting prowess. It’s been something of an odd season for Kershaw at the plate, as the ace has had an uncharacteristic lack of sacrifice hits to start the year, despite being the active leader in the category with a whopping 108.
Corbin Burnes and Colorado’s Chi Chi González are really the only other names worth mentioning at this point in the season, as they’ve managed to knock a handful of hits to keep them afloat until their next starts. While it’s not impossible for these two to climb up the rankings with a couple of good swings before the All-Star break, they’re currently not much of a threat to the leaders.
While the award landscape is starting to shape up in earnest, it’s still one that’s incredibly volatile, even as we approach the halfway mark in the season. With such minuscule sample sizes, a good hitting day could propel almost anyone to the forefront of the discussion, and we will likely see more than a few new faces when we check back in on the race later this season.