DH in the National League? You Can’t Spell Ron Blomberg Without “NL”

Over at NBC’s Hardball Talk, my friend Craig Calcaterra wrote a piece this weekend entitled, “Pitchers batting is dumb and the DH should be universal.” It was injuries to Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer that got him thinking about it, but he says those injuries are not the sole basis for his opinion:

I am not so naive, sensationalistic and alarmist to say that the NL rule is dumb simply because Adam Wainwright and Max Scherzer got hurt. No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I appreciate that Wainwright and Scherzer’s injuries — and Chien-Ming Wang’s and any other injury which happened to a pitcher while batting — were freak occurrences. They could’ve happened while they were fielding their positions or messing with frozen hamburger. Two bad instances like this are not, in and of themselves, justifications for scotching the rule even if they are the impetus for thinking about the rule.

No, the NL rule should be scrapped because pitchers can’t hit a lick, there is no rational basis for not having the DH in both leagues and, as such, the risks to NL pitchers while batting, however small, are unacceptable.

(The whole article, like most things Craig writes, is worth reading. The comments, not so much.)

Craig’s stance on the DH is a little surprising, because he is a National League fan. In fact, Craig doesn’t like the idea of bringing the DH to the NL, but he thinks it’s best for the game.

I am in the same boat. I am a Dodger fan, and it is built into my DNA to believe that National League baseball is a better, more pure version of baseball than that garbage they play in the American League. I’ve been known to say snobby things about AL managers not knowing how to double switch and how much more challenging it is to manage a game around the pitcher’s spot in the lineup.

But Craig’s point, which I totally agree with, is that there are very few valid reasons (other than Tradition!) to keep having pitchers bat in the NL. People talk about slippery slopes (“Why not have a second DH for the weak-hitting shortstop, too?”), but the DH has been around for 42 years, so the slope can’t be that slippery. People talk about strategy, but the strategy is not lesser in the American League, just different. Instead of figuring out when to double switch and whether to let a pitcher battle through an inning because he’s leading off the bottom half, AL managers have to figure out how to pitch to a lineup that has David Ortiz instead of Justin Masterson.

One of the greatest moments I have ever experienced in person in a baseball stadium was when Clayton Kershaw hit a home run off of George Kontos in the bottom of the eighth inning of a 0-0 game on Opening Day in 2013. There is a part of me that gets sad to think about never experiencing a moment like that again. But there is also a part of me that can remember the other hundreds of times I’ve watched pitchers hit, and they were not nearly as exciting. The only other time I’ve seen a pitcher hit a home run in person was on April 18, 1992, when John Smoltz hit one off of Orel Hershiser at Dodger Stadium. Smoltz finished that season with a slash line of .160/.222/.200 for an OPS+ of 18. Kershaw’s OPS+ in that 2013 season was 42 (.182/.241/.260).

Even the best-hitting pitchers in baseball are not good hitters. Former Silver Slugger Zack Greinke has a career line of .214/.263/.325 (62 OPS+). The latest slugging pitcher du jour, Madison Bumgarner, has slashed .162/.203/.249 for his career (28 OPS+).

And this is not a new thing. Wes Ferrell, who hit more home runs than any other pitcher in history, had a career OPS+ of exactly 100 (.280/.351/.446). And among pitchers with at least 20 career homers, Ferrell was by far the best hitter. Here are the others, with their career OPS+:

Since 1901, there have been 48 pitchers to have more than 20 career plate appearances with an OPS+ of at least 100. If we raise the threshold to 100 plate appearances, that drops us down to eight pitchers. Eight. In 115 years of baseball, there have been only eight pitchers who were above average offensively, and only one since World War II — Micah Owings, who was not a good pitcher.

Injuries to two star pitchers in the same weekend is not a good reason to implement the DH, but when you combine the general risk of injury with the fact that there is zero benefit to pitchers actually hitting, it becomes clear. I’ve never heard an argument other than “tradition” or “strategy” for making pitchers hit, and until I do, I come down in favor of bringing the DH to the NL. I hate myself for saying it — I am literally punching myself in the head right now — but that’s my verdict. I’d rather pay money to watch people do things they are good at.

What do you think? Do you have a good argument other than tradition or strategy for why the NL should not adopt the DH? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter at @snidog.

7 Responses

  1. Steven Gardner

    Vicente Padilla. That guy could throw at anyone when he played in Texas without any repercussions personally, and even his own teammates hated him for it. He starts pitching in L.A. and if he decks someone, he better hope there is a pinch hitter ready by the time he gets up.

    • Jeff J. Snider

      I don’t disagree with you, but I don’t think “so we can throw at them” is a compelling reason to make pitchers hit. :-)

      • Steven Gardner

        True enough. So I go to my other argument. Baseball teams make a conscious choice to not emphasize hitting from their pitchers, but there is nothing obligating them to do that. They could train their pitchers to hit better. Instead, in the American League, they take the bat away from pitchers and give it to someone who is probably a liability on defense. I want nine complete ballplayers out there, people who have to play on both sides of the foul line.

      • Jeff J. Snider

        I disagree with your premise that pitchers COULD be good hitters if they tried harder. There are some pitchers who take a lot of pride in their hitting — they are still bad hitters. Pitchers have always been bad hitters. Babe Ruth was a good hitter, so they had him stop being a pitcher so he could focus on his hitting, and then he became the best hitter ever.

        There are some people who will never be good hitters. Hitting a 95-MPH fastball or a Major League curve is a remarkably hard thing to do, and it is an entirely unrelated skillset from throwing those fastballs and curves. If we demanded that pitchers be good hitters, we would reduce the quality of pitching, partly because they would spend more time working on their hitting than their sliders, and partly because pitchers would get bumped out of the league because they couldn’t hit.

        I agree that the ideal would be “nine complete ballplayers,” but we have never had that in the history of baseball, so I don’t see why we should think it is going to happen now. So our options are “eight hitters and a pitcher” or “nine hitters,” and I would rather pay money to watch people do things they are good at.

      • bb

        You need to look at how the game changes when the dh enters the picture, not just that pitchers usually suck at hitting. There is a charm about pitchers hitting that you are missing as you vote against how the game was created. The dh is a form of softening and catering to popular culture, or rather a more shallow audience that knows less about the original flow of the original game.

      • Aquaria

        DHs are abominations because they’re lazy bums who get paid huge money to play the game hardly at all. At least NL pitchers actually earn their money because they make a far greater contribution to a team than any ugly lazy slob DH ever will. Pitchers have earned their right to be at the plate by being good on the mound. DHs just show up at the plate and then are bad over 70% of the time. That’s not earning the right to be at the plate, cupcake.

        You’re thinking of it stupidly, but what else can one expect of any supporter of the DH except lazy, moronic excuses for thinking.

  2. bb

    Dh was a terrible, soft, tasteless idea.
    Strategy changes, thus does the game itself. Who would want a dh in the national league who has any appreciation for the history of the game? To me you would have to be an idiot, sorry.
    There needs to be respect for tradition, not this candy bull to potentially create more excitement.
    I’m disgusted with those who would vote for a dh in the national..


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