Boy, that designated hitter talk sure hit the fan, didn’t it? While none of us have to like it (myself included), there is an air of inevitability to it, particularly with some guy named Dan Vogelbach smashing baseballs down in Tennessee (but where ya gonna play him, eh?).
Someone asked for proof that pitchers legitimately suck at hitting. Well, it’s still very early on in the season, so most pitchers have barely 10 plate appearances, but we can check the leaderboards. I’m gating by wRC+, or weighted runs created plus, which sets an average offensive player to 100 wRC+ and anyone who is less than 100 is below average by definition. As you can see, all of the pitchers with plate appearances right now (except for ten, including our own Jason Hammel) have terrible wRC+. You have to dig quite a bit to find another Cubs pitcher, Kyle Hendricks, who has a NEGATIVE wRC+ (meaning he may actually be costing runs!), and then even further to find a “good” hitting pitcher in Travis Wood. The quirky thing to think about is that Hendricks and Wood have an RBI each, but Hammel does not, although wRC+ doesn’t necessarily care how many runs a guy can drive in. The point here is that we have empirical evidence that pitchers are horrendous at hitting, and if I were as awful at my job as they are at hitting, I would probably be fired, and that’s an understatement.
You often hear people say, “Well, this pitcher can at least hit better than this one guy with a crappy bat.” And maybe they could be right, if we’re relying just on our lying eyes. But, with the caveat that statistics are just a tool to help us understand and normalize the game, we note that former Chicago Cubs legends Tony Campana and Darwin Barney have career wRC+ of 59 and 69 (nice) respectively, which is better than noted Cubs hitter Carlos Zambrano…imagine that.
Now Anno posited the idea of a designated fielder, in response to the “slippery slope” argument that ravaged the internets over the past few days after Adam Wainwright broke. Now I’m going to say that I do not believe baseball will EVER get as specialized as American football with entire squads for offense, defense, and special teams. The issue, as I stated in the previous blog, is that pitchers as a whole are so much worse at hitting than even the worst MLB hitters, and that gap is much more significant than the one between, say, Tony Campana and the average position player. There exists an inherent safeguard in baseball to expose a hitter’s weakness on defense and to force team-building to focus on getting the best overall athletes, or to ensure that if they have to put a statue in the field, that statue can at least slug 35 homers. I also highly doubt MLB will ever try the “DH just for a plate appearance” idea that Cubs broadcaster Jim Deshaies suggested tonight, because that needlessly complicates the issue. However, the designated fielder idea is something worth exploring.
For example, if we look at the Cubs leaderboard at the moment, we see that Chris Coghlan has a wRC+ of 124, which is pretty good. Coghlan can hit decently well and has good power. He is also quite the butcher in the field, and you can imagine a manager wanting to keep his bat in the lineup while keeping his glove tucked securely on the bench where it can’t do any damage. You may also notice that until he cools down a bit (again, just barely over 10 plate appearances at the moment, and that wRC+ will likely go down a ton after Hammel’s 0-for tonight), Jason Hammel is probably a better hitter than a Darwin Barney. We’re just using this as an example because in the macro sense, there’s little chance Hammel defeats Barney in a hitting contest.
What Anno and I are both trying to do is to create a situation where you remove one atrocious glove from the lineup while at the same time removing one atrocious bat. I give you Rule 6.10, the Designated Hitter Rule:
(b) The Rule provides as follows:
A hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and all subsequent pitchers in any game without otherwise affecting the status of the pitcher(s) in the game. A Designated Hitter for the pitcher must be selected prior to the game and must be included in the lineup cards presented to the Umpire in Chief.
The designated hitter named in the starting lineup must come to bat at least one time, unless the opposing club changes pitchers.
This is all very familiar to us. The thing is…why just limit it to replacing the pitcher in the lineup?
Also, is it possible for MLB to negotiate a change to Rule 6.10 such that DH can apply to one position of the manager’s choice, not just P?
— Rice Cube (@CubicSnarkonia) April 27, 2015
So if you have a pitcher who can rake better than a solid defender, just DH for the defender. Eliminates need for full squad specialization. — Rice Cube (@CubicSnarkonia) April 27, 2015
In this case, you’re changing the wording in Rule 6.10 ever so slightly, replacing all the “pitchers” with simply “players.” This way, the DH can now be used for any one position on defense, giving the manager flexibility in his decision making. For the most part, the manager will still DH for the pitcher. But now, if there’s a really good hitting pitcher (in this case, April 2015 version of Jason Hammel), you take Chris Coghlan out of the field, shift one of the infielders into left field, and DH Coghlan for Darwin Barney. The premise of the DH remains the same (replace a crappy bat) and the manager can only do it for ONE bat, not the entire team.
I think it’s worth considering, but because defensive players still work on hitting (unlike pitchers), and position players MUST hit to stick in the majors, this is a long shot. However, it’s still much more likely than hoping that National League pitchers will suddenly learn how to hit like Babe Ruth, or even Ferguson Jenkins, ever again.
By the way, Fergie had a career wRC+ of 19. That’s pretty bad, even for a Hall of Famer.