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Free Preview: "The DH, Revisited"

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 25
April 26, 2018

In an otherwise desultory five-inning performance last night, Clayton Kershaw slapped a single to left in his first at-bat. It was his third hit this month, and he finished the game batting .231, 3-for-13 on the young season. You might think Kershaw’s showing is an argument for allowing pitchers to continue batting, as the National League has for its entire existence. It’s not.

Kershaw’s single is one of 75 hits pitchers have so far this season, in 740 plate appearances. A bunch of those PAs have been given over to sacrifice bunting, as per usual. In the rest, pitchers, as a group, are embarrassing themselves: .113/.138/.142, with 325 strikeouts. It’s early, but pitchers are in line to have their worst season at the plate in baseball history, a year after they had their worst season at the plate in baseball history.

The baseball-reference stat tOPS+ is a group’s OPS+ relative to the league -- 100 is average, higher is better. Pitchers’ hitting, relative to the league, isn’t just getting worse; it’s starting to fall off a cliff.

Worst Hitting Seasons By Pitchers (tOPS+, 1925-2018)

        AVG   OBP   SLG  tOPS+    K%   K/BB
2018   .113  .138  .142    -21   44%   18.1
2017   .124  .156  .161    -14   38%   12.6
2014   .122  .153  .152    -12   37%   12.6
2006   .131  .166  .175    -10   33%   10.0
2016   .132  .164  .171     -8   39%   12.3

I’ll stop the chart there, but if I kept going, you’d find that five of the six worst seasons for pitcher hitting have come in the last five years, 2018 inclusive. Seven of the eight worst have come since 2012. As pitchers evolve into velocity monsters with vicious cutters working the edges of the strike zone, the most vulnerable victims of those skills are their fellow hurlers. Pitcher batting, which has been a regressive trait ever since pitchers were allowed to throw overhand in 1884, is now nearly a nonexistent one.

We’ve been having fights over whether the pitcher should bat for generations. The DH rule was adopted by the American League in 1973, but had been bouncing around as an idea since the late 19th century. The earliest season we have splits for is now 1925; pitchers hit .207/.245/.272 in ’25, for a tOPS+ of 35. Shortstops, the second-worst hitters, hit .270/.329/.359 for a tOPS+ of 80. As far back as we can measure right now, pitchers have been a fraction of the hitters that the worst position players are. The best seasons for pitcher batting are the earliest, and even then pitchers were terrible hitters, peaking at a 38 tOPS+ in 1927. There’s a focus, in the storytelling, on Wes Ferrell and Don Newcombe and Red Ruffing, but the vast majority of pitchers couldn’t hit. It simply wasn’t their job to do so.

No pitcher with at least 300 plate appearances has finished his career as a league-average hitter since Ferrell, and his career ended before World War II. The best-hitting pitchers since then are Ken Brett, Oscar Judd, Schoolboy Rowe and Newcombe, just one of whom played past 1960. In the expansion era, just one pitcher, Brett, has even an 80 OPS+ -- which is to say, been within 20% of a league-average hitter. Just four have been within 30% of a league-average hitter, and only one of those, Dontrelle Willis, has played since 1981. Everybody loves Madison Bumgarner, and Bumgarner has a career .185/.232/.322 line, for a 53 OPS+. Zack Greinke supposedly signed as a free agent with two NL teams in part because he liked hitting so much. He’s a career .213/.256/.308 hitter, 52 OPS+. Mind you, these are the 21st century’s wildest success stories.

The best argument for the designated hitter is watching pitchers bat. As the game has evolved, though, it's become even clearer that the DH should apply across MLB. When the DH rule was implemented, starting pitchers went deep into games, threw a lot of innings and, as such, batted a lot. Relief pitchers would take at-bats as well. In the 1972 National League, pitchers accounted for 7.4% of the league’s PAs. Eight pitchers had more than 100 PAs. Tug McGraw, relief ace, batted 20 times. Pedro Borbon, also a reliever, batted 23 times. There was a stronger argument, at the time the DH was implemented, that pitchers were expected to be complete players.

In the NL of 2017, pitchers are down to 5.2% of PAs -- fewer than half of what you would expect from a given lineup spot. Jacob deGrom led all pitchers with 77 PA, and just six had even 70. (Thirty pitchers had at least 70 PA in 1972.) Relievers almost never bat. Michael Lorenzen rode an early-season pinch-hit homer to 12 plate appearances. Chris Rusin batted nine times, Craig Stammen six, Dustin McGowan six. The best relievers, no kidding, never bat. Kenley Jansen has spent his entire career in the National League, nine seasons, and he’s batted eight times. Craig Kimbrel spent five seasons as a dominant NL closer and held a bat once. Mark Melancon has made three NL All-Star teams since his last major-league plate appearance back in 2011.

The “nine-man game” argument has been mooted by the evolution of pitcher usage. We have this enormous class of players for whom hitting is just not something they do. David Robertson has made more than $50 million playing baseball without ever coming to the plate. Trevor Hoffman was about to become the Hall of Famer with the fewest career hits (four), until the Veterans Committee slid Jack Morris -- no career hits -- in through the back door. Mariano Rivera, 0-for-3 in a 19-year career, will follow the two of them in shortly. Some of the highest-paid players in baseball have the most narrowly-defined jobs. In nine seasons, Aroldis Chapman has two career plate appearances and 49 career defensive chances. Forget hitting; some of these guys aren’t even asked to field a ball more than once a month.

If you accept one-inning relief pitchers as baseball players, which the game clearly does, then you have to accept designated hitters as well. They’re two sides of the same coin. Three hundred eighty-one men pitched in the National League last season. More than a third of them never batted. More than half of them batted twice or less. Without a rule change, without controversy, without exobytes of arguments, the “designated pitcher” came into being over the last quarter-century. Isn’t it time we let that inform the DH discussion?

Pitcher batting has become a joke, with pitchers more overmatched at the plate than ever before. The evolution of pitcher usage is such that pitchers are asked to bat less than they ever have. Most pitchers, even in the National League, rarely bat, and a significant number of them never do. We’ve opened the Hall of Fame to players, full-career National League players, who almost never batted, a trend that will surely continue.

The argument that baseball purity demands complete players, a nine-man game, is forever lost. Let’s acknowledge that to end the silliness of pitcher batting.