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The Universal DH: What the MLB Loses When Pitchers Stop Hitting

Baseball’s new labor deal includes full adoption of the designated hitter in the National League. Let’s take a moment to celebrate #PitchersWhoRake one lasttime.

I love baseball for many, many reasons. And for its various quirks and eccentricities in particular.

It’s the only mainstream sport— and golf is a game, not a sport— in which the ballpark and playing field dimensions are different venue to venue. It’s the only major mainstream North American sport with glorious weekday afternoon games to brighten up those blander days at the office. And until Thursday, it was the only sport that could feature a different set of rules depending on who the home team was.

While it’s great that the Major League Baseball lockout is over and we’ll be playing a full 162-game season starting April 7, a piece of the heart and soul of what made baseball great has been taken away from us; a piece of my childhood and Americana torn apart and irreversibly stamped upon. The era of the universal DH — and thus the death of pitchers hitting — is upon us.

And baseball is duller and less interesting because of it.

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As a baseball purist (read: nerd), I loved the strategic element of pitchers hitting. What do you do with the No. 8 hitter or No. 9 hitter if a pitcher like, say, Zack Greinke is the one batting eighth? Does the pitcher sacrifice— remember bunting?— or does he swing away? If he was performing well in a close game, a manager was forced to make a decision about whether to use a pinch hitter or let the hot hand stay hot.

With the universal DH now in place, managers are now less important than they were before.

The death of pitchers hitting also essentially means the death of the double switch, of the strategic nuance that made baseball distinct, unique, and better for me in that way than any other sport. Pinch hitters and benches are less important, too, muting the importance of several aspects roster construction.

I loved how interleague series had different rules depending on the home ballpark. How American League managers had to adjust to National League rules and vice versa, especially in the World Series.

That will never happen again, and that makes me sad.

At the same time, I’m not blind to the advantages of a universal DH. Those top full-time designated hitters will no longer have to take days off based on venue. Conceivably, there will be more offense in the game now, something baseball definitely needs in order to bring in audiences younger than myself. Per Baseball-Reference, designated hitters slashed .239/.316/.434 last season, far better than the “automatic out” slash line of pitchers at .110/.150/.142 and better than pinch hitters for pitchers at .213/.303/.350.

Only first basemen and right fielders had a higher average OPS+ by position than the DH last season. We’ll all be curious to watch how the prevailing OPS+ for No. 9 hitters changes with non-Shohei Ohtani pitchers out of the bat-swinging equation.

Despite all that, the pure, sometimes childlike elation arising from a pitcher succeeding at the plate in a crucial moment of a game will be sorely, sincerely missed. The frustration you feel as a fan when your team walks the opposing hurler, gives up a game-tying single, or even surrenders a home run… well, we won’t ever get a moment like this again:

That dinger by then-42-year-old Bartolo Colón sent shockwaves through the sports world that never would’ve happened in the new DH-only universe, turning an ordinary May Saturday into an incredible moment we’ll never forget.

That surprise, that unexpected Big Sexy magic is something we’ll now never see again. And that hurts.

I’m not old enough to remember when the DH was first instituted in the AL in 1973. But when future generations ask me about the era of #PitchersWhoRake, I’ll tell them all about how quirky and interesting it was that baseball’s two leagues had different rules and managerial strategy played a much more distinct role in how the game was planned and played.

I’ll tell them that baseball lost a piece of its soul on a March Thursday leading into the 2022 season, and how the fact that there was no turning back brought me sadness.

Pour one out for the hitting pitcher. Baseball will be a less interesting place without it.