I thought I’d seen every possible absurdist argument against the designated hitter going universal to stay. (It won’t happen until after this season, if baseball’s government can quit its foot-dragging over it.) Then I read Jayson Stark in The Athletic Friday. It wasn’t Stark making such an argument but, rather, a couple of his respondents.
Stark is a Spink Award Hall of Fame writer with as much passion for mulcting “Weird and Wild” baseball moments as I have for learning about them. How could he resist White Sox pitcher Dylan Cease having a day during which he struck eleven Reds out . . . and, having to make plate appearances himself for the first time in his major league life, nailing three hits?
How could Stark resist noticing the last American League pitcher to go 3-for-3 at the plate in his first Show game (Boo Ferriss, 1945) came 76 years before Cease fired? Or, that the only National League pitcher to do that in his premiere between 1945 and now was then-Met Steven Matz (2015)?
How, too, could Stark resist making note that of those three pitchers Cease is the only one who’d never shown up at the plate to bat in his entire professional baseball life until that fine day in Great American Ballpark? And Cease’s refusal to desist happened when (Stark’s words) “a few guys who hit for a living” hadn’t had a three-hit game all season yet: Mookie Betts, D.J. LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, Francisco Lindor.
Then there’s Braves pitcher Huascar Ynoa, hitting a home run each in back-to-back pitching starts, with the second one—off Nationals pitcher Tanner Rainey, with the bases loaded and Ronald Acuna, Jr. on deck—going over the almost-straightaway center field fence.
It was the first time any Braves pitcher hit home runs during back-to-back starting assignments, Stark points out, since June 1961—when Lew Burdette and his running-mate in the comedy department, Hall of Famer Warren Spahn, did it in the same week, never mind the same season.
Ynoa can claim to be only the third pitcher to homer at the plate in back-to-back starts during which he also surrendered an earned run total of (wait for it!) zero. And whom might the other two be? Stark has your answer: Don Larsen, 1958; and, Rick Ankiel, 2000.
Now, repeat after me: All the foregoing are what such creatures have always been—outliers. Extreme exceptions. Non-habit forming. Hope Diamonds versus glass. Henry Aaron for one day compared to Hank Conger lifetime. Nolan Ryan pitching 27 seasons worth of major league baseball. Get the picture?
More than a few of Stark’s commenters didn’t. “Screw the DH! Let pitchers hit (at least in the National League),” read one, to which another gentle reader replied, “I don’t get why so many people want to take pitchers hitting out of the game.”
Yes watching pitchers hit is painful but getting these types of moments with Cease and Ynoa are so worth it. It’s fun! Just think about the most memorable baseball moment in the past 5 years. What is it? Bartolo’s home run. Take away pitchers hitting and we’ll never see anything like it again. Let pitchers hit!
The first sentence by the second such reader is dismissed almost too easily. Fair disclosure: I did so, posting that as of Saturday morning, the cumulative slash line for pitchers at the plate this season is .108/.136/.146, for a mighty .284 OPS. And, I wrote further, that the cumulative slash line for pitchers at the plate from the end of the 20th Century’s first decade through the end of the 21st Century’s first decade is .158/.207/.199, for a big fat .406 OPS.
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again the way I said to that gentle reader: Show me a position player with a slash line like that, and I’ll show you a guy who won’t get past the minors even if he’s the next Mark Belanger with the leather. Even Belanger slashed .228/.300/.280. And he only got to play major league baseball for eighteen years because he was a human Electrolux at shortstop, who finished his career worth one defensive run saved above league average less than Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. (Belanger: +238; Smith: +239.)
Bartolo Colon’s 7 May 2016 home run in San Diego is baseball’s most memorable moment of the last five years? It was a regular riot, no question about it. But if I called it the most memorable moment in 2016-2021 baseball, it would expose me as having slept through a small truckload of moments that were far more memorable if not half as laugh-and-a-half funny. Games Seven of the 2016 and 2019 World Series come to mind at once, for openers.
Using outliers to support arguments is as fatuous as making memes out of Ryan and fellow Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, as someone did aboard Facebook last week, showing the two righthanders sharing a laugh during a Shea Stadium event, with “Pitch Counts?” above Ryan’s head, “Innings Limits?” above Seaver’s, and “#SMH” under Ryan’s and “#LOL” below Seaver’s.
The head smacks and laughs out loud should be aimed at those witless to comprehend that, for every Ryan and Seaver there are 1) probably a hundred or more hard-throwing pitchers who didn’t have a third their career longevity; and, 2) definitely not any single pitchers otherwise blessed with the exact or equivalent physiology to that pair.
Those same head smacks and laughs out loud should also be aimed at those who think Cease, Ynoa, and Colon are mic drops for keeping the National League immune to what they think is the taint, if not the virus, of the DH. By the end of the regular season—when the still-batting pitchers overall are unlikely to finish with a slash line higher than that .108/.136/.146 thus far—Cease and Ynoa will likely remain the outliers they are at the plate, assuming they do get any more base hits the rest of the way.
Hitting this season’s tough enough, seemingly, without further wasting precious outs on behalf of an anti-idea whose time really left the building long before Elvis ever did. If you’ve got a rally in the making, or you pushed a run or two across the plate with the promise of more to come before the inning’s over, do you really want to watch the enemy pitcher bury it alive by finding a way around your serviceable number eight batter to strike your pitcher out for the side? Or, to lure your pitcher into a rally-killing, inning-ending double play?
Don’t even think about countering with “sacrifice bunts—strategy!!” either. Unless you see the other guys put the old wheel play on (corner infielders down the line; middle infielders to the corner bases) so you can fake a bunt for a base hit, send four pairs of cement hands out to the infield, or present yet another defensive overshift yielding open prime real estate, bunts waste outs. (“I have yet to meet the fan who bought a ticket to a major league game,” Keith Law wrote in Smart Baseball, “because she really wanted to see guys drop some sac bunts.”)
Unless you think managers in any era made their lineups out by rolling dice, turning cards, playing eenie-meenie-mienie-moe, calling the Psychic Hotline, or tossing coins and interpreting the I Ching, here’s a scoop that shouldn’t be a scoop: most baseball strategy is plotted before the game begins.
Make the DH universal and give National League managers the options American League managers have enjoyed for decades without having to move a pitcher above the number nine slot in the order: maybe a second cleanup hitter or an extra leadoff-type in that slot.
Relieve them, too, of the brain-bending decision (and yes, I’ve seen it happen) to remove a hot starting pitcher before his gas goes AWOL because his spot in the order’s due up early enough with men on base and a chance—especially down the stretch of a pennant race or with postseason survival at stake—to tie a game or bust it open as long and wide as the Chunnel.
Of course it’s fun to see the very occasional Ceases, Ynoas, and Colons*. But I’ll Cease and desist those in half a heartbeat, on behalf of putting a permanent end to the historic and overwhelming majority of pitchers killing my rallies because the historic and overwhelming majority of the lot of them hit as though they swing swimming pool noodles at the plate.
Instead of thwarting the universal DH, how’s about we kill the free cookie on second base to open each extra half inning and the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers? (Somebody might get killed because of the latter.) Or would that cause Commissioner Nero and his mouse-like employers to think, “Nope, makes too much sense?”
* It took Bartolo Colon nineteen years of major league baseball, only two and a half of which were National League seasons, and 248 previous major league plate appearances, before he finally hit James Shields’s 38th pitch of the game into the left field seats.
It didn’t even take Mark Belanger that many plate appearances to hit his first of twenty lifetime home runs—Belanger did it in his seventh plate appearance of 1967. And Belanger wasn’t a tenth as funny running his out as the portly Colon who ran like a cement truck with the rear tires deflating en route.