While most pitchers can’t hit, it’s fun to watch those who can — and sometimes those who can’t. The St. Louis Cardinals shouldn’t be pro-DH in the NL.
St. Louis Cardinals fans have heard the tired old arguments for bringing the designated hitter to the National League: It will increase offense, eliminate the automatic out that occurs when most pitchers bat, and ensure a roster spot for a good-hitting, fielding-challenged ballplayer.
The drawback of a National League DH? From the Cardinals standpoint, it would mean no more extra-base hits by Adam Wainwright, no more furious, fall-down swings by Carlos Martinez, and no more shock-the-world singles by .077-hitting Dakota Hudson.
Former Reds and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden has reported that there is a “growing belief” that the DH could be installed in the National League as soon as 2021. Makes sense. In the wake of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, commissioner Rob Manfred and general managers are sure to make some headline-grabbing changes, especially changes that increase offense and divert attention from baseball’s most recent black eye.
Would the DH be a disaster for the NL? No. It would bring more runs across the plate, and bring rules in alignment with the AL, which has employed the DH since 1973. Would it make the NL game more entertaining? Not necessarily.
Most modern pitchers are wretched hitters, but there’s a considerable range in their competence and style, from the comically inept, like .083-hitting ex-Cardinal Lance Lynn, to the rock-solid Zack Grienke, who hit .280 with an .888 OPS (in 56 plate appearances) with the Diamondbacks and Astros last year.
While pitchers come in every shape and size, from the Rangers’ 6-5, 280-pound Lynn to the Dodgers’ 6-1, 174-pound Joe Kelly, another ex-Cardinal, DHs tend to come in one, thickly muscled version. Last year, the AL’s average starting DH was 6-foot-2, weighed 230 pounds, hit 25-plus home runs, struck out a ton, and ran the bases like a pregnant sloth.
Sure, they produced offense, but there was a sameness to these sluggers. Does any AL fan look at a lineup and think, “Yes! Our DH can outhit their DH?” In the NL, you may count a tiny edge when your pitcher can actually hit a little, and the opposing hurler cannot. Or feel disadvantaged when the Cardinals’ Dakota Hudson (.077 batting average, .171 OPS) squares off against the Brewers’ Brandon Woodruff (.254 average, .653 OPS).
A decent-hitting pitcher should benefit from that skill, just as he benefits from fielding prowess and a good pickoff move.
Also, watching a pitcher really slug one, as rare as it is, is a pause-the-TV-and-call-someone moment. Or, if an opposing pitcher thumps one against the Cards, it’s a howl-with-misery moment. Either way, it’s more entertaining than watching a DH do what he’s supposed to do — smack it deep and waddle around the bases.
Besides, evaluating an unfamiliar pitcher’s stance and swing is an enjoyable, if condescending, pastime for many a fan. “Hey, he holds that bat like he knows what he’s doing!” “That wasn’t a half-bad swing!” “That woulda been a single if the shortstop hadn’t got in the way!”
The last point evokes Dr. Samuel Johnson’s famous (and sexist) eighteenth-century line about women preachers. Omitting the bigoted beginning of the quotation, one could say that a pitcher batting “is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Is that a legitimate reason to block the DH? Because it’s so adorable watching a pitcher flail at the plate? Of course not. But it is a treat to watch a pitcher who can actually swing a bat, especially if he’s on your team. And the Cards have had a few of those, namely:
• Bob Gibson. While lauded for his bat, the great Gibby was up and down at the plate, hitting as low as .133 with no homers in 1967, the year he broke his leg, and as high as .303 with a .751 OPS and 19 RBI in 1970. Gibson’s 24 career homers are tied for seventh all-time among pitchers.
• Rick Wise. Acquired in the infamous Steve Carlton deal with the Phillies, Wise had his greatest season in 1971, the year before he joined the Cardinals, winning 17 games and hitting six home runs with a .724 OPS. Pitching for the Phillies against the Reds on June 23, he became the only player in major-league league history to hit two home runs and throw a no-hitter on the same day. Wise hit four homers with a .503 OPS in two St. Louis seasons.
• Bob Forsch. He won the first Silver Slugger for pitchers in 1980 and added a second in 1987. This should come as no surprise: Forsch was a third baseman his first two years in the minors. He hit .213 with 12 homers over 16 major league seasons.
• Rick Ankiel. As a 20-year-old rookie pitcher in 2000, Ankiel hit. 250 with two homers and nine RBI. After losing the ability to throw strikes, he reinvented himself as an outfielder in the minors, returning to the Cardinals to hit .285 with an .863 OPS in 2007 and .264 with 25 homers, 71 RBI and an .843 OPS in 2008. He continued to play for a variety of teams through 2013.
• Jason Marquis. The former Brave hit .262 with a .646 OPS with the Cards from 2004 to 2006.
• Adam Wainwright. The 2017 Silver Slugger-winning pitcher has a .199 career average with 10 homers and a .527 OPS over 14 seasons. Those who saw it will never forget his pinch-hit, two-run double in the 12th inning vs. the Pirates on June 10, 2016.
Sure, those are the exceptions to the pitchers-can’t-hit rule, and Waino’s .199 average and 24 walks to 244 strikeouts wouldn’t fly if he had to bat rather than pitch for a living. If you can’t bear the sight of a pitcher feebly waving his bat at three straight pitches before sitting down, the DH is for you. And, yeah, it’s kinda silly that the AL and NL have had one different rule — DH vs. no DH — for the past 47 years.
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But if you appreciate the occasional bat-proficient hurler, then you better hope the DH gets DQ’d before infesting the NL. It’s bad enough that all-around players like Wise, in the mid-1970s, and Grienke, last year, have to mothball their bats when they’re shipped to the other league. Benching an occasional .120-hitting pitcher wouldn’t be such a shame, but some of us would miss watching the Waino types swing the lumber.