While enjoying the best pitching duel of the 2012 season tonight, I can think of no better argument against the designated hitter than Cliff Lee’s third-inning bunt against the Giants.
The sacrifice turned out to be inconsequential, as the third out of the inning was made in the following at bat. Still, Lee’s bunt was textbook – a first-pitch pearl down the first-base line to move a runner into scoring position. It was one of those plays that demonstrates the lifeblood of baseball fundamentals – that the balance between one side of the ball and the other is paramount. No one expects a pitcher to come up and knock the ball out of the yard. But, there’s no better way to magnify one’s dominance on the mound than to come up with a seemingly little contribution at the plate.
No one should have more respect or surprise for the fact that Lee can hit than Giants fans, after his debut as a National League pitcher in 2009. In his first game after being traded from Cleveland, Lee not only shut down the Giants in a 5-1 complete-game victory. He was also 2 for 4 at the plate, and scored a key insurance run late in the game – dispelling the notion he was ill-equipped to hang in an NL lineup, despite going just 2 for 32 in eight seasons worth of interleague play in the American League.
Pitchers need to be able to handle the bat, at least in the NL they do. And more importantly, they deserve the chance to show they can. This got me to thinking of some current AL pitchers who rarely get to demonstrate one of the most important fundamentals upon which the game of baseball is based – the ability to disrupt nine guys throwing the ball around the field by effectively wielding a 32 oz. stick of wood.
One that isn’t such a secret: Yankees ace C.C. Sabathia. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound Sabathia played just one half season in the NL with a stint in Milwaukee for a stretch run in 2008. His at bats quickly became a regular highlight reel on ESPN, though his hitting ability came as less of a shock after he hit .300 (12 for 40) through his eight seasons in Cleveland. Can you imagine the highlight reel that could have been had he and Lee been allowed to hit during their four-plus seasons together with the Indians?
One that is a big secret, though maybe not so much to old-school Giants fans: Joe Nathan. It’s baseball’s loss that Nathan has only taken two at bats since being traded to Minnesota prior to the 2004 season. Nathan was drafted by the Giants as a shortstop out of college in 1995. After graduating to the major leagues as a pitcher, he hit two home runs in 2000, including one at spacious Pac Bell Park. Who knows what would have been if he’d ever gotten an at bat at the homer haven that was the Metrodome?
Another great secret is one of Nathan’s current teammates in Texas: Scott Feldman. Harkening back to Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, which soon after the completion of the 11-inning slugfest was heralded as one of the greatest games in the history of baseball. With Texas batting in the top of the 11th and down to the bare bones of their bullpen, the Rangers pinch hit for Feldman with utility player Esteban German, who ended up going hitless on the postseason. Little does the baseball world know – Feldman can hit. In his final year of amateur ball at College of San Mateo in 2003, the left-handed hitting Feldman hit .351 with three home runs and 23 RBIs. As it was in Game 6, after hitting for Feldman, the Rangers were forced to use their final relief pitcher Mark Lowe in the bottom of the inning, who promptly surrendered the legendary game-winning home run to David Freese.
And finally, my personal favorite: Jason Vargas. In his first two seasons in the big leagues with the Florida Marlins, Vargas was a .310 hitter. This should come as no surprise after the lefty’s junior year at Long Beach State in 2004. As a pitcher he played second fiddle to ace Jered Weaver’s epic 15-1 season. But, as a hitter he paced the team with a .354 batting average, outhitting teammates John Bowker and Troy Tulowitzki.
Granted, Feldman and Vargas were both designated hitters in college. But hey, so far as I’m concerned they can DH all they want in college. My anti-designated hitter premise is about playing the big-league game, where they should be playing the game right.
The biggest problem with the designated hitter rule in Major League Baseball, though, isn’t the pound-for-pound discrepancy of half the pitchers in the game not being allowed to bat. The biggest problem is the rule creates vastly different environments in each league – and in a way, turns the leagues into altogether different versions of the sport.
Want proof? In the words of Woodward and Bernstein – follow the money. The two landmark free-agent signings of the offseason of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. There’s you’re proof.
Both players migrated from the National League, with Pujols inking a 10-year deal, and Fielder a nine-year deal. Being the two best players in baseball at their position, and both being relatively young, the two marquee sluggers were in unique positions to command such long-term deals. But, by virtue of the designated hitter rule, American League teams were in a far better position to gamble on decade-long deals, as the DH loophole guarantees sluggers can get at bats without enduring the wear-and-tear of playing the defensive half – the more physically demanding half – of the game.
Just look at the cautionary tale of Todd Helton. Prior to the 2003 season, Helton signed a nine-year deal with the Rockies of the National League. Following two All-Star seasons in ’03 and ’04, Helton began to decline over the next three seasons as an everyday player, until injuries caused him to miss parts of three of the next four seasons.
Sure, Pujols and Fielder will be playing plenty of first base this season amid the first year of their respective deals. But, mark my words, come the 2014 season, the DH rule is going to propel them both into the twilight years of their contracts. And, if either of the two maintain an average of 500 at bats per season after that, expect the AL migration for burly power hitters to become the law of the land in Major League Baseball.