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Some thoughts on pitchers hitting and the DH from Ryan Dempster

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The former Cubs hurler talks about what he liked about hitting.

Ryan Dempster at bat vs. the Reds in Cincinnati in 2012
Getty Images

MESA, Arizona — I have written, here on this very site, many words about the designated hitter, and how I’d eventually like to see it in the National League. Many, many words (and those three links are just from last month alone).

Some of you are dead-set against the DH rule being adopted in the N.L., for various reasons. I acknowledge that when it comes, some things will be changed in baseball forever. In connection with all this, I thought it would be a good thing to hear from an actual pitcher who did hit in the major leagues about what it’s like to do that. I had the opportunity to talk recently with former Cubs righthander Ryan Dempster and get some of his thoughts on hitting and the DH.

Dempster, by his own admission, wasn’t a good hitter. The numbers back this up: He hit .099/.118/.121 (58-for-588) in his career with nine doubles, two triples and 221 strikeouts (struck out in 32.1 percent of his 688 career PA).

And yet, of hitting, he said: “I loved it. I believed that even if you weren’t a good hitter, there was a way to affect the game. Greg Maddux always told me: Get your bunts down. And that’s true, if you got your bunts down, moved guys into scoring position, showed that you can handle the bat, you were helping the team. And he also said: ‘Try to make the pitcher throw five pitches every at-bat.’ If you can do that, that’s 15 pitches you have cost the pitcher, one inning, just by yourself. I knew I might strike out, but how do I make the pitcher throw five or six pitches in this at-bat.”

Those are wise words from Maddux, and Dempster was indeed successful in “getting his bunts down” over the course of his career. He had 85 lifetime sacrifices (sixth-most of any pitcher during his playing years of 1998-2013), and in 2008 he led the major leagues with 19.

For those of you who like the “strategy” part of pitchers batting, Dempster’s right with you, and he also told me, “The bunt’s really gone now, nobody’s really bunting, but as a general rule, I always felt it was like, you’re putting a guy in scoring position, allowing yourself to stay in the ballgame longer. I would hate to see that go away.”

I asked Dempster what a starting pitcher’s routine is, and what starters do on the four days they’re not starting. He surprised me by first saying, “We would take BP every day. For a 7 o’clock start, with the home team hitting about 4:20, pitchers would hit at 3:45.” But, he added: “You have to remember, you’re hitting [in games] once every fifth day. And then on top of it, your real work is your pitching, so I’m going to throw bullpens and watch video. It’s not that you don’t have time, but to throw all your energy into hitting, too — mentally, you need a break. So you go through all your pitching routines, and working out, plus, you have to be careful. You don’t want to be asked, ‘Why’s his back getting sore?’ and have to say, ‘Well, I was taking 150 swings a day in the cage.’”

And then there are the pitchers a modern pitcher might be facing, as Dempster noted: “You hit once every fifth day, and maybe in a five-start stretch I face Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, Kyle Hendricks, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Hitters can’t get hits off those guys!”

He added, “To be able to get consistency as a hitter, where you can actually get into a groove, is so hard. There are guys who can hit, like Big Z — Z could rake! He put the best BP together of any player I’ve ever seen other than Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa. Even we as players would sit in the dugout after we were done and watch those guys take BP. Alex Fernandez once asked me, ‘You’re going to watch this?’ We said, ‘Yeah!’ He said, ‘They’re only reaffirming what they’re going to you during the game!’”

Most years during his starting career, Dempster would get between 75 and 80 plate appearances a season. That’s about one-eighth of what a full-time position player would get, and that’s changing, too. Dempster’s prime starting years spanned 2000-12 (except for the years he spent in the pen), and with starting pitchers going fewer innings than ever over the last couple of years, that’s been reduced to about 60-65 plate appearances. That’s true even for guys who make 34 starts, the usual maximum these days. Only six MLB pitchers had 70 or more PA in 2018; Scherzer led the majors with 78. Going back 10 years prior to 2008, 26 pitchers had 70 or more PA that year. Pitchers as a whole had 5,101 PA in 2018, 5,905 in 2008. That number is likely going to continue to drop.

So even if you don’t care for the designated hitter, it’s clear that pitchers are batting less and less over time. I will grant you that part of baseball will go away when (not if) the DH is made universal. I think the most salient point Dempster made about why pitchers don’t practice hitting more often is that no one wants them to get injured “taking 150 swings in the cage” when it’s more important for them to work on their pitching, in addition to the “mental energy” he mentioned that pitchers have to conserve for their days starting.

Thanks to Ryan for his insights on pitchers’ hitting and I hope it’s also given you a look into what pitchers do on their usual four days between starts. Perhaps except for Greg Maddux — the greatest pitcher of his generation! — they’re not off just playing golf those four days!