on Baseball

National League Baseball Is So Hard for Me to Watch:
Having Pitchers Hit

I don’t like watching Major League pitchers hit. Because they can’t. One of the greatest dramas in baseball is the pitcher – batter confrontation. I find few things in sports more compelling and dramatic than a great battle between a great pitcher and a great batter, particularly at a moment when the game is on the line. There are few moments worse than when a pitcher comes to the plate at a critical juncture in a rally. It spoils the entire moment, and watching a pitcher strolling to the plate in a big moment dampens the drama.

Yet some of my friends, who root for National League teams, feel compelled to defend the National League’s insistence on inflicting suffering upon their fans by compelling their witnessing pitchers being over-matched.

So, here is the argument I make to them. My argument is best presented by my recounting an extended conversation I had at Citi Field with a New York Mets fan who sat next to me during a Yankees – Mets game three years ago.

After the Mets fan sitting next to me realized I was a Yankee fan, he struck up the debate by telling me that the National League plays “real baseball” because the pitchers hit. When I asked him if he enjoyed watching pitchers flail at the plate, he insisted that he really loved watching them.

We then engaged in a running debate over a period of about five innings.

A. National League Does Have Designated Hitters

I first pointed out that the National League does employ designated hitters for pitchers. Actually, they often employ multiple designated hitters for pitchers in a single game. Only in the National League they are called “pinch hitters” and using one requires the removal of the pitcher from the game regardless of how good he is pitching.

B. Everything is Done in the National League to Avoid Having to Watch Pitchers Hit

The truth is that everything possible is done in the National League to insure that pitchers don’t hit, or at least hit as little as possible. The National League manager is always looking to avoid having the pitcher hit. In any meaningful at bat (other then in the first three or four innings or so), the manager will “pinch hit” for him – that is, send up a designated hitter for a particular at bat scheduled for the pitcher. After a pitcher is initially “pinch hit” for, the manager will almost invariably make a so-called “double switch” in which the manager will remove a starting position player whose turn in the lineup comes up last or second to last after the inning is over in an attempt to insure that the new pitcher will never come to the plate, all in an effort to limit the number of designated hitters – that is “pinch hitters” – the manager must use for the pitchers in a game.

C. Having Pitchers Hit Injects “Strategy” into the Game

My new Mets fan friend, who sat next to me at Citi Field, proudly proclaimed that the National League game was superior to that of the American League because the need to replace the pitchers at the plate injected “strategy” into the game. I had heard this argument before and it always was especially perplexing to me.

I first responded by telling the Mets fan that he had just gotten done telling me how much he enjoyed watching a pitcher come to bat. Now he was telling me that he had special joy in watching the manager taking special care to see that the pitcher didn’t get to bat.

But my full reply to the “strategy” argument was far more substantive.

First, witnessing the implementation of the “strategy” is boring. Who wants to watch a guy come out of the dugout, scratch himself, and stretch. Besides, it doesn’t take a genius to send up a pinch hitter. There really isn’t any meaningful strategy.

Second, I never saw a standing ovation for a double switch. No one is titillated by it. Further, double switches tend to annoy, especially when a superior pitcher is removed for an inferior one, and a good position player is swapped for a lesser bench player.

And there is the rub. While the designated hitter rule, employed by the American League, all minor leagues and colleges, operates to strengthen the line-up and maximize the level of competition – the level of that great pitcher confrontation at the heart of the game – the “strategy” of the double switch has the complete opposite effect.

In the “double switch,” a pitcher who may be performing his primary function extremely well – pitching – is removed for a lesser pitcher because he can’t perform the function for which he is not hired to perform – hitting. At the same time, a regular position player is removed and replaced with a lesser bench player precisely to avoid having the pitcher come to the plate.

I suffered through an 18 inning game at Wrigley Field between the Yankees and the Cubs on May 7, 2017. By the 15th inning half of the starting position players had been replaced, including my favorite – Aaron Judge. The teams no longer resembled the starting line-up. Both teams batted around eight times. One player had nine plate appearances. The Cubs used eight pitchers, but only one came to bat, and only twice out of eight bat arounds. The Yankees used seven pitchers and a pitcher came to bat only 3 times. By the 16th inning, the teams were decimated and I left. My National League fan friends (who stayed all 18 innings and saw their Cubs lose) never got to witness the “real baseball” they loved so much, that of their pitchers hitting after the 4th inning.

If we want to call pinch hitting and “double switches” strategy that is fine with me, as long as it is acknowledged that it is bad strategy to have rules in the game that require the use of devices which lesson the quality of the players engaged.

D. The Coup de Grâce

While I was sitting at Citi Field next to this Mets fan, our debate extended into the 6th inning. It was a low scoring game and the Mets starting pitcher was pitching well. However, the Yankees led by one run going into the bottom of the sixth inning. With one out, the number eight hitter in the Mets’ line-up got on base, which loaded the bases. A single would have put the Mets ahead. With one out, and down by one run, the Mets pitcher strode to the plate.

I turned to my new Mets fan friend and said:

“Well, here it is. This is what you came for.”

Before he responded I added:

“You better pray that he strikes out, because if he doesn’t, he will hit into a double play.”

It was on the fourth pitch of the at bat when the pitcher made contact. He hit into an easy double play and the inning – and the Mets’ rally – was over.

As I turned to the Mets fan to say “I rest my case,” before I could speak a word, he jumped up, let out with a long, loud string of expletives and ran out of the section we were sitting in and headed to the exit. He never returned. The Mets didn’t really get another good rally and the Yankees won the game.

Now I will say it.

“I rest my case.”