Enjoy the lack of NL DH while you have it, if you must

Charlie Morton

Charlie Morton, a pitcher who thinks his breed at the plate, instead of throwing to it, is a waste of lineup slot.

Guess what you didn’t hear if you watched the World Series on Fox Sports Friday night. You didn’t hear as much about what happened in the bottom of the second as you should have heard. More’s the pity.

Right then, right there, in Truist Park, in Game Three, occurred a textbook example of what can happen when the life of a rally may depend upon a) a pitcher with a pool noodle for a bat looming on deck; or, b) that pitcher having to swing his pool noodle bat when there’s a chance to put runs on the scoreboard.

Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud was on second with a two-out double. The Astros ordered starting pitcher Luis (Rock-a-Bye Samba) Garcia to signal the intentional walk to Dansby Swanson. (Remember, you don’t have to make the pitcher throw four wide ones for the free pass anymore, which is a good thing for not adding wear on the arm.)

Looming on deck—Braves starter Ian Anderson. Rookie. Promising young pitcher, but swings a bat that might as well have been made by Ronzoni. Hit 54 cents on the regular season, hit zipadee-doodah in the postseason approaching the plate now. The net result? Garcia struck him out to end the threat and the inning.

What a surprise.

Neither Fox broadcaster Joe Buck nor John Smoltz—the Hall of Fame pitcher who pitched many a splendid game for the Braves in his career—spoke much if at all about the deeper significance of Anderson’s wasted plate appearance.

Oh, they’ve mentioned the coming of the universal DH, which is liable to begin next season, but if you were looking for the deep take you didn’t really get it. Especially from Smoltz, a pitcher who finished his career with a .159/.226/.207 slash line at the plate. They spoke more of Anderson having the maturity of a 65-year-old in his demeanor than they spoke of what his second inning plate appearance really indicated.

This year’s pitchers batted a whopping .110 with a .150 on-base percentage. Since the last decade of the dead-ball era, they’ve batted .162. It has been, it is, and it’ll always be the single most guaranteed lineup waste in baseball. It isn’t even close.

“For every Adam Wainwright,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said before Game Three, “there’s ten [pitchers] that can’t hit. They don’t hit anymore at a young age, they’re specializing in pitching or whatever at a young age, so after experiencing it last year, I’m all for the DH.”

Wainwright is the Cardinals’ grand old man who’s actually batted .193 in sixteen seasons to date, including ten home runs and 51 total extra-base hits over the span. For a pitcher, that’s splendid and outlying plate production, in most generations. He’s even managed to knock 75 runs home.

It’s a wonder Wainwright doesn’t threaten first degree murder every time he has to bat—he lost a full season of his career to an Achilles tendon injury incurred . . . running the bases.

You want to ask Smoltz’s longtime, Hall of Fame rotation mate Tom Glavine about it? The New York Times did. “Take the brutality, so to speak, of what pitcher hitting has become, and I still feel like it allows for way more strategy in the National League,” lamented the .203 lifetime-hitting lefthander. “I’m hoping that that part of the argument will certainly be a strong one, but it seems now that there’s more momentum than ever to get rid of it.”

The brutality of what it has become? How about the brutality of what it always was? Then-Pirates owner William Temple Chase wasn’t just talking to hear himself talk when he lamented his five main 1891 Pirates’ pitchers hitting .165 as a group and proposed that off-season that the game should adopt what we know as the designated hitter. (It failed by a single vote.)

“Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball,” said the ancient paper Sporting Life in agreement with Temple. “It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.”

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I was a great hitter,” Glavine continued, “but as a pitcher, I was certainly a good hitter, and I felt like my ability to do that was an advantage every time I went out on the mound. I wasn’t necessarily going to get an RBI base hit or whatever, but I knew two things: Number one, if I had to bunt, I was going to get the bunt down, and number two, I wasn’t going to be an automatic out.”

Glavine was an out for 80 percent of his lifetime plate appearances. Getting the bunt down simply meant that thirteen percent of the time he was a wasted out while he and his Braves and Mets were at it. How is a pitcher bunting not normally an automatic out, anyway? Beating those bunts out for base hits isn’t exactly a constant thing with them, either.

How about if the National League had taken its head out of its colon in the first place—pitchers wouldn’t have to worry about wasting outs, and managers wouldn’t have to watch helplessly when their pitchers a) ended rallies, or b) injured or winded themselves running the bases on the rare occasions when they picked up base hits.

This time, I won’t apologise for beating a dead horse, because in this case the horse was and remains right, and the bottom of the second in Game Three Friday night proved it.

“It’s fun to see Max Scherzer slap a single to right field and run it out as if he thinks he’s Ty Cobb,” wrote now-retired Thomas Boswell in 2019. “But I’ll sacrifice that pleasure to get rid of the thousands of rallies I’ve seen killed when an inning ends with one pitcher working around a competent No. 8 hitter so he can then strike out the other pitcher. When you get in a jam in the AL, you must pitch your way out of it, not ‘pitch around’ your way out of it.”

If and when he does it, that is. Scherzer was 0-for-2021 at the plate, including four hitless postseason plate appearances and one sacrifice fly that doesn’t count as an “official” at-bat in the scoring. Forget Ty Cobb, Max the Knife didn’t even get to run it out as if he thought he was Ralph Kramden.

The word also is that, when the owners and the players start talking turkey to work out the next collective bargaining agreement, they may consider allowing the universal DH—at a price: the owners and commissioner Rob Manfred may actually demand that a team surrender its DH for the rest of the game unless their starting pitchers go a minimum number of innings.

Brilliant. As if the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers hasn’t screwed things up enough often enough? (Not just because too many managers are leaving them in beyond the third batter with opposing rallies in the making, either.)

Suppose they do impose a six- or seven-inning starters’ minimum in return for the universal DH. What happens to every starting pitcher who has a bad start and gets shot early, often, and full of more holes than a hanging target in a police shooting range?

Forget about blowing the poor sap’s ERA to infinity and beyond. You’re going to force him to stay in for a minimum six- or seven- and maybe sink his team so far that the Navy SEALs couldn’t get them out alive?

Baseball’s the thinking person’s sport. Those who govern and play it should start thinking again. At least one starting pitcher now lost for the rest of the World Series does some thinking.

“I’m always late to the on-deck circle, just because I need to unplug for a minute, and I like to worry about the job that I have to do on the mound,” said Braves pitcher Charlie Morton to the Times. “That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s what I’m prepared to do, spend the vast majority of my time doing. They’re paying guys lots of money and guys are working their tails off trying to be good hitters, and I’m up there taking at-bats.”

They used to say a player’s only as smart as his batting average. Morton’s a Ph.D. better than his lifetime .127 average.

A Hall of Famer says beware bad looks through real concerns

2020-05-20 TomGlavine

Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine—The Edmund Burke of the 1994-95 players’ strike hopes today’s players beware the bad looks even if their alarms about playing half a season are justified.

Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Glavine has learned many things over the years. Including that there come times when, even if you’re right, lots of people still think you’re wrong.

During the 1994-early 1995 players strike, Glavine couldn’t convince Joe and Jane Fan—well enough lubricated by a large enough, loud enough, pro-owners press—that the owners, trying to jam a salary cap down the throats of the players who’d already rejected it several times previously, really wanted to force the players to stop them before they over-spent, mis-spent, or mal-spent again.

Today, Glavine hopes to convince players to beware the bad look, even if they’re dead right, when they quake over the owners pushing to pay them according to a 50-50 revenue split if and when major league baseball returns this year, it’s not going to look good to an awful lot of people missing larger points—including the prospective health risks and whether sound precautions will be put in place for MLB to return.

It’ll be one thing if the return is hampered over genuine health concerns that the players haven’t been shy about expressing. It’ll be something else, Glavine fears, if it comes down to financial issues—even if the players are right to holler foul after the owners first agreed to pay their 2020 salaries on a pro-rated basis, before trying for the 50-50 revenue split that could cost both sides money but the owners considerably less.

“If it were to come down to an economic issue and that’s the reason baseball didn’t come back,” says Glavine—one of the most visible and more thoughtful players’ spokesmen during the 1994-95 strike—to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “you’re looking at a situation similar to the strike of ’94 and ’95 as far as fans are concerned. Even if players were 100% justified in what they were complaining about, they’re still going to look bad.”

At least as bad as Rays pitcher Blake Snell looked last week, when the lefthander said, “For me to take a pay cut is not happening because the risk is through the roof. I’ve got to get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK? And that’s just the way it is for me.” It was one thing for Snell to express concern for the health risk but something else to look as though his health depended entirely upon his income.

Even if the Washington Post‘s invaluable baseball columnist Thomas Boswell could and did write, the same day, that the owners first proposed the half-season to begin in July “provided that the players agree to a percentage-of-the-revenue deal on salaries that would be exactly the kind of de facto salary cap they have rejected in every labour negotiation I have covered since the 1970s. Very amusing, owners. What, you thought the players wouldn’t notice?”

It wasn’t only the players who noticed, either. It may be a bad enough look when Blake Snell says the risk isn’t worth it if he takes a pay cut to assume it. It’s just as bad if not worse when the owners one minute enunciate genuine alarms over the health risks with the coronavirus still on the loose but the next minute remind us that, to them, the common good of the game equals too little more than making money for it and them, and not necessarily in that order.

Glavine in 1994-95 wasn’t even close to Snell’s shoot-from-the-lip style of talker. He was thoughtful, articulate, and becalmed, enunciating the players’ positions with the tone of a parliamentary debator. It wasn’t his fault that it fell on blind eyes, deaf ears, and pre-conditioned minds.

The lefthander who pitched his way to the Hall of Fame with smarts, control, and a corner-dominating changeup, behaved as the epitome of professionalism even in the face of mal-informed opposition.

Glavine now admits he made one major mistake during the strike: making himself accessible to a fault. “[It] was a miscalculation on my part,” he tells the Journal-Constitution. “I just felt like if I did an interview on the radio or TV, if I had five or 10 minutes, I could make somebody understand what was going on and come to our side. That just wasn’t going to happen.”

Boswell saw and raised last week:

[Owners and players] face a choice that is not a choice at all. They can fight, waste time and end up with zero games and $0.00 in total revenue for the year, as opposed to the $10.7 billion they split up last year. Or they can figure out how to play those 78 (or whatever) regular season games, plus a postseason with as many as 14 teams and additional TV revenue. Then they probably end up with nearly $4 billion this year. That’s a lot better than $0.00.

So if it turns out that the coronavirus recedes enough in the next 50 days while safety measures and testing reach a point where a half-season could be played but isn’t because of bickering, I will be fascinated to see how anyone explains that to fans.

Still, you get the salary-cap animus. MLB is the one American team sport without a salary cap but with the greatest diversity of World Series champions since its disgraceful reserve era ended of any American team sports.

Those of us old enough to remember and with brains enough to know better when the owners screamed ending the reserve era meant ending “competitive balance” scoffed then. (And, pointed to all those “competitively balanced” decades when it seemed the World Series wasn’t a World Series without the Yankees in it or winning it) should scoff now at the owners’ bid to end-run their way to a de facto salary cap. But . . .

“So how could you frame a deal that would not set a salary cap precedent?” Boswell asked, then answered. “Maybe the owners say: ‘We’re going to get killed. We can pay you one-third of your 2020 salaries if you will play one-half of the season, plus a slightly expanded postseason.’ Then you negotiate from there.”

And you don’t step too far in front too often to negotiate in public, whether you’re an owner or a player. The looks are going to be terrible. Maybe not as terrible as a Donald Trump tweetstorm that in saner times would go innuendo and out the other, but terrible enough.

Glavine learned the hard way once upon a time, and he was probably the Edmund Burke of the players’ side during that 1994-95 strike. What Samuel Johnson observed of Burke could be said unapologetically about Glavine: “He chose his side like a fanatic and defended it like a gentleman.”

He knows that having our normal back would include having the games we love back, even as he knows concurrently that athletes have every right to fear for theirs or their families’ health. He doesn’t have to say that the owners should have the same concerns for the other staffers, front office and ballpark alike, who help the games play.

“For me here now, Georgia is open to some degree,” says Glavine, a New England native who’s made Georgia and Florida his home since his playing days. “I can choose what I want to do. I can choose how much I want to expose myself. When you’re starting to get on planes and travel as a sport, you’ve lost control over that. Now you’re trusting in everybody else providing an environment for you that is safe.

“If I was playing today, I wouldn’t say, ‘Hell no, I’m not playing’,” he continues. “But of course, I’d have a concern that once you step out that door and you go back into that world, there’s a chance you’re bringing something home to your family. It’s 100 percent fair for players, coaches, everybody to be concerned about that.”

Most of the players who’ve spoken out about the matter have been prudent enough to speak health first, pelf and anything else later. They’re not wrong to fear the owners reneging on a deal they thought they had, in the middle of figuring out how to play through and around the still-too-real health risk.

Just make the points without being dismissive, smug, or tunnel-visioned, and let the owners hang themselves if it comes to that. Anything beyond, and Joe and Jane Fan aren’t going to bother about the nuances when they have no MLB to see even on television.

Glavine does because he’s been there/done that, as a player and now as a fan who admits he missed the NHL postseason as much as he’s missing baseball, both as a fan and as a Braves television analyst.

“It’s part of the routine, it’s nice to do what you do all day, eat dinner and then sit down and watch some kind of game,” he says. “Not having games to watch has been hard. But, you know, we’ll get through it.”

Glavine himself helped take the sting out of the 1994-95 strike by throwing the clinching shutout in the only World Series championship (1995) won by those dominating Braves teams of the 1990s and early Aughts.

Someone will take the sting out of 2020’s coronavirus-lost baseball, too, in due course. Whether it’s in 2020 or, worst-case scenario, in 2021. Someone always does.