We all have our reasons to affix an asterisk on the 2020 MLB season. Start with the 60-game schedule (and its instant pennant race, just add water), the empty ballparks, extra-innings gimmicks, a slew of social distancing rules, and it's hard to recognize what's left.
Still, depending on how strict your adherence to old-school ideology, the most profound change is Commissioner Rob Manfred's implementation of the universal designated hitter. It means the National League, which is either stuck in a time machine or the last true connection to baseball as it's supposed to be played—your choice—is dead for now.
Let's face it: The other measures, revolutionary as they may be, were borne out of necessity. The COVID-19 pandemic boxed in Manfred, who wants to play the season as quickly as possible, limit exposure to the virus and get out of Dodge before November. None of that is unreasonable.
But industry-wide implementation of the DH is a hotter debate. It's either a) the long-overdue nod to the public's preference for offense or b) the final nail in the coffin of the sport's purity.
Opinion is split down the middle: Of the 13,188 fans who were polled by MLB Trade Rumors in 2018, 50.07 percent favored keeping the DH in the American League only.
Our take? It's time to spare pitchers any further suffering in the batter's box—their averages are already around 160 points below position players. Their trips to the plate are inevitably a buzzkill and a drag on the National League's otherwise fast-paced athleticism. And spare me the counterpoint that MLB is drifting further away from tradition. Sometimes change makes sense—or were you opposed to the advent of the wild card and division series in 1995 too?
The good news, though, is that both sides of this partisan fight will get their wish. The universal DH was shelved for 2021 after talks between the Players Association and the owners collapsed last week. The experiment was scaled back to cover 2020 only.
But union head Tony Clark has said in the past he's open to making it permanent. No doubt he'd like to create more jobs for older, higher-paid sluggers. And the owners, who took a PR flogging over the last three months, need every gimmick they can get their hands on. Because really, what's the superior eye candy: a 400-foot beast of a home run or three pathetic swings from an overmatched pitcher and back to the dugout?
Yes, the DH means forfeiting late-game strategy, but the coming tease in 2020 places hitting pitchers on the endangered species list. Their extinction is inevitable, and we'll have to rely on our memory to recall Madison Bumgarner, Jacob deGrom and Zack Greinke as line-drive machines. They've served as a counterbalance to those who've been lovably inept—we're looking at you, Drew Pomeranz (0-for-19 with 13 strikeouts last year) and Jose Urena (0-for-19, 14 K's).
Not that there's any shame in whiffing. The idea that a pitcher could hold his own against a 90 mph fastball has always required a belief in magic. Hitting, after all, is the most challenging skill in sports. Not even Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes of our lifetime, was good enough to stick in his crossover year from the NBA.
MJ could've arguably cut it on the PGA Tour, maybe even caught passes in the NFL. But he flamed out in the minor leagues in 1994 for one simple reason: he couldn't barrel up. Of course, no one ever thought less of Jordan. He just happened to learn the hard way that, like a pitcher, unless you've spent a lifetime in a batting cage, you're probably weaker in the ways that account for bat speed and exit velocity.
"If you think of great major league hitters who've been around for, say, 10 years, they're like construction workers who hammer nails all day. The strength in their hands is incredible," said Billy Beane, Oakland's vice president of baseball operations. "That's the part about hitting that pitchers lack—the repetition that builds hand strength."
Yet to the average viewer, hitting is like juggling: It looks easy until you try to do it yourself. That's the service pitchers like Pomeranz, Urena and—let's throw in another poor soul: Drew Smyly, 0-for-19, nine strikeouts—provide. They're reminders that hitting elite pitching in The Show is darn near impossible.
A few years ago I had a conversation with Chris Capuano, a smart left-hander whose career lasted 12 seasons, mostly because of an intuitive ability to outthink hitters and disrupt their bat speed. A Phi Beta Kappa at Duke, Capuano could do it all on the college level—pitch and hit, albeit with aluminum. But nothing prepared him for the shock of his first big league at-bats with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2003.
"I learned pretty quickly what a major league fastball is like—it kind of hisses at you, which is intimidating," Capuano said. "And guys throw so hard, when they locate on the outside corner it feels like the ball is a million miles away. You walk away from the plate thinking, 'Wow, I really had no chance.'"
Most pitchers can instantly detect a lack of skill 60 feet away. Their brethren, forced into an at-bat, look tentative and unbalanced, hands too high, feet dug in too far from the plate. The body language is a cry for help.
There's some sympathy during this mismatch. Former Yankees and Mets hurler David Cone, now an analyst for the YES Network, said: "It's an unspoken thing between pitchers, especially if you know the guy personally. Sort of like, 'You don't show me up, I won't show you up.' You both try to end it as quickly as possible."
So how was it ever possible for great ones to emerge? Sometimes it's been a confluence of good genes and luck.
Babe Ruth is obviously at the top of the list. The Los Angeles Angels' Shohei Ohtani, a pitcher-hitter hybrid, belongs in a special category as well. But among those who only moonlighted in the batter's box every four or five days, nothing compares to Walter Johnson's .433 average in 1925. That's regarded as the best single season ever by a pitcher—and that was at age 37. Two years later, in his final go-around before retirement, The Big Train ended with a .348 average.
Others were pure sluggers. Don Drysdale, for instance, hit 29 homers for the Dodgers between 1956-69. Some, like Wes Ferrell, were all-around threats (.280 career average, 38 HRs, 208 RBI from 1927-41). And back in the early 2000s, Mets hurler Mike Hampton, who amassed 16 HRs and 79 RBI in his career, was enough of a threat to the Yankees during a Subway Series that Joe Torre ordered a special scouting report.
"We had pitchers meetings about Hampton alone," Torre said at the time. "He was very, very dangerous."
Today's top slugging pitcher is a coin flip between Greinke and Bumgarner. But if the universal DH becomes permanent, neither one will have had the honor of turning out the lights on this era. That would be Gerrit Cole, who faced Sean Doolittle in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the 2019 World Series.
Naturally, he struck out.
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