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MLB Pitchers' Historically Awful Hitting Should Seal the Fate of a Universal DH

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 13, 2021

Nobody wants to watch Trevor Bauer hit.
Nobody wants to watch Trevor Bauer hit.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Major League Baseball will hopefully never have another season like the one it did in 2020, but at least it offered an exciting glimpse of what baseball will look like when the designated hitter is universal.

Sans pitchers hitting for themselves, last year saw National League clubs outscore their American League counterparts—by 110 runs, no less—for the first time since since the DH's second year of existence in the AL in 1974. Accordingly, it turned a few skeptics into believers along the way.

But while such things seemed to all but guarantee the return of the universal DH for 2021, the MLB Players Association didn't see it as a fair trade for a second straight year of expanded playoffs. Because that proved to be an insurmountable hurdle, pitchers are once again hitting for themselves at NL parks.

It's, uh, not going so well. 

      

Seriously, It's Bad

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To be sure, offense is down all around MLB as hitters (as in, actual hitters) are working on an all-time-low .238 batting average. There's no one reason for this, but the new, less lively ball seems to be a big one.

And yet, it's hard to blame the ball for how pitchers are also trafficking in all-time awful numbers.

Excepting last year, in which there were only 14 occasions of pitchers hitting for themselves, the .103 average that pitchers have in 2021 is the worst such mark in history. The same also goes for their collective .135 on-base percentage.141 slugging percentage and 48.0 strikeout percentage.

Because pitchers took a year off hitting in 2020, rust is surely a factor here. But this is also a case of the wind continuing to blow in the same direction it's been blowing for a long, long time.

Whereas other positions have had their ups and downs on offense over the decades, the line for pitchers has been going nowhere but down for 150 years:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs

Of course, one thing that's neither here nor there in a graph like this is the utilitarian art of the sacrifice bunt. Particularly in the last half-century, it's been perhaps the best way for a pitcher to make himself useful at the plate.

But things aren't looking so hot there either. In 2021, only 7.1 percent of pitchers' plate appearances are resulting in successful sacrifices. That's the lowest full-season mark since 1970.

It's therefore fair to say that pitchers have never been more useless at the plate than they are right now. And given that the universal DH existed in 2020 and is sure to be back on the negotiating table ahead of the current collective bargaining agreement's expiration on December 1, it all leads to a simple question.

Is there literally any reason that pitchers should keep hitting for themselves beyond 2021?

      

The Two Best Arguments Against the Universal DH

Even if they're few and far between, instances of a pitcher doing something cool at the plate aren't altogether nonexistent.

There are, after all, some so-called "Pitchers Who Rake." For example, Madison Bumgarner (2.7 percent of all plate appearances) has hit home runs at nearly the same rate as former San Francisco Giants battery mate Buster Posey (2.8 percent) throughout their respective careers.

Plus, even pitchers not named Shohei Ohtani can hit absolute tanks. Isn't that so, Jon Gray?

There's also something to be said about the rarity of pitchers coming through at the plate making the occasions that much more special. This is a thought worth sharing if for no other reason than it's an excuse to revisit Bartolo Colon's one and only home run from his 21-year career:

The typical baseball purist or National League loyalist will argue that there's also strategic value in allowing pitchers to hit for themselves in that it forces managers into playing chess when they have to decide whether to pinch hit for a pitcher even if he might be twirling a gem on the mound.

A perfect example of this unfolded at Citi Field on Tuesday, wherein both the Baltimore Orioles (John Means) and New York Mets (Marcus Stroman) had to make a series of moves that hinged on lifting their respective aces even as they were dueling in a game that resulted in a 3-2 final.

Mets skipper Luis Rojas was loving it, later telling SNY's Andy Martino:

“I grew up in this game being the son of a National League manager [Felipe Alou]. So that’s the game that I learned. For me it was always fun. I remember just thinking ahead, always watching the games as a little kid back in the day. I would think of all these moves -- how can you do a double switch? How can you force some things? I’ll miss it if it ends up going that way. It's fun. The strategy is fun.”

Even if they boil down to mere aesthetic preferences, arguments such as these aren't wholly without merit. Because if something enhances somebody's appreciation for baseball, that something simply can't be a bad thing.

Nevertheless, those who don't want the universal DH should enjoy 2021 while it lasts.

        

Next Time, the Universal DH Will Be Permanent

Even though the MLBPA and MLB seemed decidedly at odds about the universal DH during spring training, there was no shortage of finger-crossing going on in the weeks leading up to Opening Day on April 1.

For instance, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts wanted the universal DH back. Ditto Chicago Cubs skipper David Ross, who had previously been a DH skeptic. For his part, San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish was still holding out hope mere hours before Opening Day.

All this relates back to not only how effective the universal DH was in 2020, but just how seamless its integration was. As much as it seemed like a huge deal that the AL's decades-long experiment was finally being applied to the NL, it was ultimately barely noticeable as everyone just kinda-sorta got used to it.

If anything, it's a bigger system shock that the universal DH is gone now in 2021. It's hard not to notice that regular at-bats are going to players who are basically automatic outs, and that the two leagues are no longer on equal run-scoring footing because of that:

This alone ought to raise doubt as to whether the infrequent shock value and strategic challenges of pitchers hitting for themselves are worth the trouble. And then there are all the other arguments in favor of the universal DH going and staying universal in 2022.

To wit, it's a way to increase offense at a time when analytical trends overwhelmingly favor pitching and defense. It's also a way to cut down on avoidable injuries to pitchers, and to hypothetically give NL clubs more incentive to compete for veteran hitters in free agency.

In light of all this, it likely would have taken one heck of a pitcher-hitting renaissance to prevent the universal DH from finally becoming permanent in the next CBA. Because pitchers are instead going out with a barely audible whimper, the tradition of them hitting for themselves is all but certain to end with the 2021 season. 

      

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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