PITTSBURGH – Name the greatest punching pitchers of all time.
Babe Ruth and Shohei Ohtani.
OK, so that was a cheap way to get you into a column about the start of universal designated hitters in MLB this week and the end of hitters, but I’m not going to apologize.
I get why baseball is going DH in the American League and National League this season, probably for good. Most pitchers can’t hit at all or even bunt, for that matter. Pitchers have reduced .148/.188/.189 since baseball’s integration in 1947, according to Fox Sports. Pitchers have helped the game’s strikeout rate steadily increase from 16.4% in 2005 to 23.2% last season. Fans miss strikeouts.
I also get universal DH from a practical point of view. No other sport has a different set of rules for its teams. It’s ridiculous, if you think about it. I had hoped the AL would eliminate the DH, which they have used since 1973, but I knew that would not happen. The players wouldn’t have allowed it. Most DHs are older players who make a lot of money. It’s the highest paid position in the game, an annual average of nearly $7.4 million, according to spotrac.com.
But I don’t have to like it.
I loved the strategy of the NL game. Let’s say a game is scoreless after six innings with both pitchers busying. The visiting team gets a few runners on base with two outs in the top of the seventh with the pitcher coming in. Does the manager pinch him for him? Tough call, right? A fun call to guess, anyway.
I know, I could reach.
How many pitchers go six innings these days?
I’ve always believed that a pitcher can help himself if he can put a ball in play, just as he can help himself if he can cushion and line up his stance. Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale come to mind. The incomparable Gibson had a .206 lifetime batting average and hit 24 home runs during his spectacular career. Drysdale hit seven home runs for 66 at bats in 1958 with an .852 OPS and hit .300 for 130 at bats in 1965 with seven home runs and .839 OPS.
Gibson and Drysdale weren’t just Hall of Fame pitchers. They were Hall of Fame baseball players.
The Pirates have had their share of good pitchers. Rick Rhoden was a career .238 hitter. No opposing pitcher wanted to face him. Don Robinson hit .231. Neither pitcher wanted to see him at home plate. Much more recently, Steven Brault hit .333 in 2019. The Pirates actually thought about trying him out as a two-way player. Who knows? Perhaps he could have been another Ohtani. Agree, or maybe not.
Some of my fondest memories of Pirates games involve pitchers that delivered big hits.
Highly publicized Gerrit Cole hit a two-run single in his first game at bat in his MLB debut in June 2013, part of his electrifying night against the San Francisco Giants. The Pirates won 8-2 in front of a crowd of over 30,000 at PNC Park. I guess no one who was there forgot it.
Go back even further. Memorial Day, 1974. The late Ken Brett won a perfect game in the ninth inning of Game 1 of a doubleheader with the San Diego Padres. Fred Kendall – father of Jason Kendall, who would be the Pirates’ catcher years later – ruined Brett’s bid for history with a debut single but did little to ruin Brett’s day. Brett didn’t just win that game, 6-0. He came back in Game 2 and hit a two-run triple in the seventh inning to lead the Pirates to an 8-7 victory. It was one of my favorite days at Three Rivers Stadium.
There’s also a bad memory of a fairly good hitting pitcher at Three Rivers. Philadelphia Phillies starter Randy Lerch hit not a homer, but two against Robinson to knock the Pirates out of the playoffs on the penultimate day of the 1978 season. I remember the Pirates taking the loss hard 10-8. So did the crowd of almost 30,000 people.
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