By Matt Citak
Towards the end of his tenure as MLB commissioner, Bud Selig made great strides towards eliminating many of the differences between the National and American Leagues.
Selig combined the two leagues’ umpire staffs, creating one large umpire staff. He brought interleague play to the sport. He even helped teams move from one league to the other, as the Brewers went from the AL to the NL in 1998, and the Astros switched from the NL to the AL in 2013.
But there was one controversial topic that the former commissioner refused to budge on- the discussion of the designated hitter being implemented in both leagues.
The American League adopted the designated hitter rule back in 1973. Since then, most collegiate, amateur, and professional leagues have embraced the rule or some variant of it.
Major League Baseball’s National League, along with Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball’s Central League, are two of the only prominent professional leagues that still force pitchers to bat for themselves.
For years, many baseball fans have pleaded for the NL to join the AL in the 21st century and finally implement the designated hitter. And, despite the evidence supporting those fans craving for a DH in both leagues, the commissioner, along with many National League owners, refused to take action.
At the end of play last week, pitchers were batting a mere .113 on the season. If that weren’t bad enough, pitchers were also striking out every 2.07 at-bats.
If any position player had those same stats, that player would have been sent down to the minor leagues long ago.
Yet here we are in 2018, with pitchers continuing to walk up to the plate several times each game, thus representing an automatic out almost every time.
Now pitchers batting for themselves has provided baseball fans with some memorable moments over the years. Bartolo Colon’s home run in San Diego will forever be one of my favorite memories of the sport. However, that one at-bat does not make up for the 296 other at-bats of Colon’s career, where he owns a .084 batting average.
What is the point of having a pitcher step to the plate several times a game for what is almost always going to be an easy out?
Let’s forget about the pitchers’ futility at the plate for a second. How about the injury risk that comes with every time a starting pitcher grabs a bat?
The list of pitchers who have suffered unnecessary injuries due to batting for themselves is endless.
Just a few weeks ago during the Subway Series, Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka was forced to bat since the games took place at Citi Field. Being a pitcher in the AL, Tanaka has very rarely batted for himself throughout his five-year MLB career.
But here he was, sprinting home on a sacrifice fly and consequently straining both of his hamstrings. This has led to an indefinite trip to the disabled list for one of New York’s top pitchers.
This was a nightmare situation for the Yankees, who signed Tanaka to a 7-year, $155 million contract with no intention of him having to run the bases for himself.
And it’s not the first time the Bronx Bombers have dealt with an injury to one of its pitchers due to the lack of a DH in the NL.
Chien-Ming Wang was a dominant pitcher for the Yankees in his first few years with the team, winning an AL-leading 19 games in 2006 and finishing second in the Cy Young race. He went on to win 19 games again in 2007, and looked to continue his strong performance the following year.
However, two months into the 2008 season, while the Yankees were in Houston playing the then-National League Astros, Wang suffered a right foot injury while running the bases. He would go on to miss the remainder of the season, and never again returned to his stellar, pre-injury form.
But it’s not just American League pitchers suffering injuries at the plate. The Yankees’ crosstown rivals have dealt with their own share of headaches caused by pitchers batting for themselves.
Mets ace and Cy Young candidate Jacob deGrom suffered a hyper-extended right elbow while swinging at a pitch earlier this season, an injury that left Mets fans holding their breath. While deGrom was not out for long, the injury easily could have been much more serious.
deGrom’s teammate Steven Matz was also forced to leave an outing early due to an incident at the plate. After tossing three scoreless innings against the Braves a few weeks ago, Matz left the game due to discomfort in the middle finger of his throwing hand. He bent the finger back during a swing-and-miss in his at-bat during the top of the fourth.
All of the evidence supports the notion of the National League finally adopting the designated hitter. And in his fourth season as MLB commissioner, Rob Manfred seems to be warming up to the idea as well.
At the conclusion of the MLB owners meetings last week, Manfred told reporters, “I think the DH is one of those topics that you never quite put to bed. I think that is a continuing source of conversation among the ownership group and I think that the dialogue is actually probably moved a little bit.”
While hardly a strong endorsement for the DH, Manfred’s comments show that progress is being made. And considering the pushback this topic has received in the past, the fact that we’re making any progress at all is great news.
So for all of those old-school National League supporters, enjoy your Bartolo Colon at-bats while you still can.
Hopefully it won’t be long before the designated hitter rule is implemented throughout all of MLB.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.