By KYLE KERSEY
For the uninitiated, here’s scripture: “The designated hitter rule allows teams to use another player to bat in place of the pitcher. Because the pitcher is still part of the team’s nine defensive players, the designated hitter — or “DH” — does not take the field on defense.” This is the official MLB glossary definition.
The DH is a rule exclusive to the American League, adopted in 1973, a time of national confusion due to the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and a burgeoning oil crisis.
Baseball is a fundamentally ridiculous game, a game filled with unbalanced rules – sometimes unwritten rules – that are treated as the word of god by fundamentalists.
Like many religions, it’s the fundamentalists who care the most, those who scoff at the idea of pitch clocks and mound visit limits to curb the ever-expanding length of a single baseball game.
Unlike many religions, these fundamentalists happen to be right. New commissioner Rob Manfred is playing with forces he doesn’t understand.
This off season, there has been talk about expanding the DH to the entire MLB as part of an attempt to make baseball more exciting. Media outlets and casual fans have taken a liking to the proposal, an elaborate ruse to keep scrawny, fundamentally unsound pitchers far away from the batter’s box.
On its surface, this is a sensible idea. After all, pitchers are as terrible of hitters as they are athletes. The position has become inherently specialized. Last year, they hit for a feeble .115 batting average. Fail 2 out of every 3 times at the plate and you’re Babe Ruth. Fail 9 out of every 10 and you’ll get a rule banishing you to the dugout.
By contrast, the designated hitter has given us titans like Jim Thome and David Ortiz, who hit for 541 and 612 home runs respectively in their star-studded careers. Neither could play a lick of defense, and they might not have had as enduring of careers had they stuck around in the DH-less National League. Last year alone, DH’s combined for a whopping 462 home runs on their own, and that’s only with half the league allowed to use the makeshift-position on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the lowly pitchers of 2018 could only muster up a combined 24 dingers.
Here’s the thing, though: pitchers hitting is important. Allowing for the inclusion of an arbitrary position meant to artificially boost TV ratings at the expense of consistent logic subtracts an element from the game: pitchers who can hit.
Yes, there was a time when pitchers took reps in batting cages because it was necessary for them to hit. Some of them got quite good at it, too, like Curt Simmons of the St. Louis Cardinals who, in 1961, held a phenomenal .303 batting average across 66 at-bats. In fact, the pitchers for that team combined for a passable .225 batting average, a number similar to what MLB catchers were hitting in 2018 (.233).
Remove the DH and I’ll wager that pitchers would be forced to learn how to hit again. Give it a few decades, and pitchers like Curt Simmons would be spread out across the league. At the very least, it would make solid-hitting pitchers like Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants and Zack Greinke of the Arizona Diamondbacks all the more valuable.
Forcing pitchers to hit is part of what makes baseball great. Major League Baseball exists as a grueling endurance event: 162 games spread over the summer months, long after Arizona has reached peak surfing weather. There are so many games that each individual contest is worthless in a vacuum. In football, there are only 16 chances to win games and make the playoffs, so every Sunday is do-or-die. By contrast, a Sunday afternoon game in May is a relaxed affair that really doesn’t have an effect on anything. Its value is diminished.
However, what if something extraordinary were to happen, something spontaneous, something so unexpected and beautiful that it defined an entire year of sport?
Perhaps something like what happened on May 8, 2016, at Petco Park in San Diego, where Bartolo Colon of the visiting New York Mets struts to the plate for his first at-bat of the game. Colon – a 42-year-old starting pitcher nicknamed “Big Sexy” by his teammates – is just about the least athletic person you could imagine participating in an athletic contest. The 19-year veteran stands only 5 feet, 11 inches tall while weighing in at 285 pounds. He is known for his excellent fastball velocity and swinging the bat so hard that his helmet flips backwards on his head.
Colon never hits. He’s 0 for 9 on the young season and his career batting average is a paltry .087. If his team can help it, they don’t let him hit. But the Mets are in the National League, which means manager Terry Collins has no choice but to send him out there to face James Shields, an all-star caliber pitcher with a wicked change-up.
With the count at 1 ball and 1 strike, Shields winds up and delivers a 90-mph ball down the heart of the plate.
Colon smacks it to deep left field. The ball sails high above the outfield wall as Colon trots his way to first. It’s hard to tell if he sprinted or jogged out of the batter’s box. They both look the same.
Mets Announcer Gary Cohen screams, “The impossible has happened!” He’s out of breath. Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, is going apeshit for an aging, out-of-shape pitcher for the New York Mets.
The DH doesn’t allow for moments like these. It relegates unlikely heroism for certain moderation. If this game was played in the American League, Colon would have never seen the plate. His manager — rightly so — would have sent out some hitting specialist waving his boomstick with much more confidence. He might have even hit a home run. DH’s are really good at hitting home runs. He might have even hit two.
And nobody would remember it. It’d be just another statistic for the statistic fetishists. Just another story for local columnists to devote 20 minutes to before moving on to the next game. SB Nation writer John Bois says it best: “The entire point of baseball is to make pitchers try to bat. It’s fantastic.”
Major League Baseball’s regular season relies on goofy oddities such as this to survive. I say embrace them.