The universal DH: “Evidence over ideology”

Bruce Hurst

As a hitter, Bruce Hurst was an excellent 1986 World Series pitcher.

Long before I got religion about the designated hitter, George F. Will did. I didn’t have a specific road-to-Damascus moment, merely a lot of re-thinking based upon a lot of evidence I’d ignored previously. Will’s road-to-Damascus moment came watching Game One of the 1986 World Series, which opened in New York’s Shea Stadium.

The ill-fated Red Sox (weren’t they always ill-fated from 1919 through the end of 2003?) were stripped of their DH playing in the National League ballpark. Their Game One starting pitcher Bruce Hurst was compelled to bat for, possibly, the first time since high school during the Ford Administration.

From the moment the Red Sox drafted Hurst in round one, 1976 draft, until that World Series game, he had exactly one professional plate appearance, in the minor leagues—and struck out. Now, in his first three major league plate appearances, Hurst struck out three times. Permit me to remind you of those three plate appearances.

Top of the third, two outs, against Mets starter Ron Darling: Three pitches, three swings, one strikeout, and one home plate umpire, John Kibler, laughing his fool head off over the absurdity of it.

Top of the fifth, two outs, a man on first (Dave Henderson, after a one-out base hit up the middle), also against Darling: A slightly miraculous 2-2 count, then swinging strike three. Runner stranded.

Top of the seventh, two outs, against Darling yet again: Well, what do you know. With Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman on second, after his grounder to second resulted in Hall of Famer Jim Rice scoring on an errant throw home, Darling walked shortstop Spike Owen—a .231 hitter on the regular season, but a .429 hitter while the Red Sox won the American League Championship Series—to pitch to Hurst.

After his well-reported harrumphing, “I’m serious,” Hurst on 1-2 swung and missed. Kibler really couldn’t help himself that time.

“Umpires are carved from granite and stuffed with microchips,” Will wrote then. “They are supposed to be dispassionate dispensers of Pure Justice, icy islands of emotionless calculation . . . Nothing that causes such a collapse of decorum can be in the national interest.” Neither was yet another rally killed by a pitcher with a pool noodle bat, in a game in which the unearned run Rice scored off the Gedman grounder was the game’s sole run.

A veteran ESPN writer, Tim Kurkjian, laments the advent of the universal DH because we will have a little less “magic” in the game: “The universal DH, for all of its uniformity, practicality, and Shohei Ohtani, saddens a small few of us, for it eliminates one of the game’s underappreciated elements: pitchers hitting, or not hitting, which, for 150 years, has provided great statistics, stories and smiles.”

Kurkjian’s roll of outliers—and, Ohtani to one distinct and extremely-extreme outlying side, outliers is what they are—kicks off with Michael Lorenzen, for seven years a Reds relief pitcher until signing as a free agent with the Angels last November. As pitchers go at the plate, Lorenzen is an outlier with his .233/.282/.429 career slash line at the plate. In 2018, he hit .290, and the entire 2018 Reds pitching staff hit .101.

Three years ago, as Kurkjian celebrates nostalgically, Lorenzen pitched and was credited with a pitching win, hit a two-run homer, and played center field in the same game, against the Phillies on 4 September.

Lucky for him. What Kurkjian omits is that Lorenzen got positioned for a win credit only because he’d served Jay Bruce a 1-2 pitch meaty enough to hit over the center field fence and tie the game at five in the top of the seventh. Lorzenen got the next five outs before getting to bat with a man on in the bottom of the eighth and hit Phillies reliever Blake Parker’s first service into the left center field seats.

You saw that how many times a season? A decade? A century? From how many members of the collective class that (ha! you thought you’d avoid me saying it one more time) has hit .162 from the end of the dead ball era’s final decade through the end of last season?

Now, riddle me this, and be absolutely honest about it for once: You saw how many more rallies destroyed by a pitcher who might as well have a cardboard paper towel tube on his shoulders when compelled to hit with a man or two on base in the early innings, because he was pitching too well to lift just yet—but rally dead because he struck out swinging or whacked into an inning-ending forceout or double play?

Smugger-than-thou National League-loving “traditionalists”—whose league once introduced carpet baseball, and who forget the DH concept was first conceived by a National League owner—love to harrumph about baseball’s diminishing entertainment thanks to managers bereft of “strategy” with the presence of the DH. Very well.

A lot of the same “traditionalists” kvetch concurrently about the alleged and unentertaining epidemic of strikeouts. (Funny how we hate strikeouts unless the pitchers we root for ring them up.) Guess which batters struck out in the highest percentages of their plate appearances last year? (44 percent.) And, a decade earlier? (37 percent.) That’s entertainment?

The age of analytics presents us with things such as the spectacle of its enemies stuck for answers when asked why they oppose more, deeper, truer  information about the game they profess to love. Long before the age arrived, however, baseball’s best managers did 90-95 percent of their “managing” before games even started.

Military pilots obtain encyclopedic, detailed knowledge of enemies and their aircraft before take off, but no conscientious air group sends them up without their parachutes. The universal DH means no baseball manager equipped with any level of knowledge before a game goes into it with the hole in his parachute that a pitcher at the plate normally proves.

In-game strategy isn’t going the way of the Pontiac yet. Like the military pilot, the manager still faces enough moments with minus one second to make the choice that proves the difference between survival and disaster.

I write as a man who was stubborn enough to ignore the evidence before him for a very long time, on the field and in the records alike. Even while watching pitchers wasting outs with sacrifice bunts that in only one out of six known “bunt situations” leave their teams a better chance of scoring after the bunt than before it. Even while watching nine and a half out of ten pitchers swing bats as if trying to swat flies with single sheets of paper. Even while watching poor Bruce Hurst at the plate in Game One of the ’86 Series.

“The real case for the DH is this: it represents the triumph of evidence over ideology,” Will wrote. “The anti-DH ideology is that there should be no specialization in baseball, no division of labor—everyone should play ‘the whole game.’ That theory is slain by this fact: most pitchers only go through the motions at bat. The DH is a way of facing that fact. It says: only serious batters shall bat.”

No one did what Lorenzen did on that 2019 day that since Babe Ruth did it in 1921. “I have a baseball card with only me and Babe Ruth on it,” Kurkjian quotes Lorenzen as saying. “It doesn’t get any cooler than that.” Reds fans bereft of the entertainment in winning a World Series since just after the death of freshly-retired conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein might beg to differ.

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