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The pitching ‘opener’ and the universal designated hitter

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One of these trends could affect the other.

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

During the 2021 postseason, we have seen multiple teams use an “opener” rather than a traditional starting pitcher, saving those starters for long “relief” stints after an opener pitches one or two innings.

This isn’t necessarily a bad strategy, although the Dodgers got a bit too cute with it during Game 2 of the NLCS with Julio Urias and it might have cost them the game.

This Los Angeles Times article by Bill Shaikin delves into the opener idea, calling it “Wall Street baseball” — a term I can’t really disagree with. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether this is a good trend or not. This quote from Max Scherzer, though, is telling:

“From a fan’s perspective and baseball as a whole,” Scherzer said Saturday, “if you look at it more from the game outside and say, ‘Is this something that ... we want the game to go into? Do we want to see this in the regular season?’ my answer is no. No, you don’t. You want to see starting pitchers. You want to see starting pitchers pitch deep. I think that’s best for the fans, best for the players, everybody involved. I think that’s how we all envisioned the games.”

I tend to agree with this, though in a recent discussion I had with some of my SB Nation colleagues, Darby Robinson, who writes for our Rays site DRays Bay, said:

The idea that fans want to see a starter struggle and fail miserably for 7 terrible innings instead of having an Opener is hilarious.

That’s not an unreasonable position to hold, especially in today’s game where many starters (I’m looking at you, Zach Davies) can’t make it through the fifth inning.

Which brings me to this on the universal DH in Shaikin’s article, in noting some rule changes tried out in the independent “partner” minor leagues this year:

A little-noticed change, in the Atlantic League: the test of a “double hook” rule, in which a team would lose its designated hitter when it removed its starting pitcher. Use an opener for an inning or two, and the DH would get one time at bat, followed by pitchers or pinch-hitters.

The early returns were promising, said Michael Hill, MLB senior vice president of onfield operations.

“It’s worth further discussion,” Hill said here Saturday.

With a universal DH up for discussion, so is this.

“I think it’s got a little bit of momentum,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “Enhancing the value of a starting pitcher, with diminishing the value of a one-dimensional slugger, directionally makes sense to me.”

First of all, not all designated hitters are “one-dimensional sluggers.” The only AL players (and for now, we’re talking only about AL DH’s, since NL players up to now only DH in AL parks) in 2021 who I’d consider “one-dimensional sluggers” are Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez and Nelson Cruz. “Enhancing the value” of a starting pitcher by forcing the DH’s removal after the starter is gone is only going to result in more pitcher injuries. Or, as my SB Nation colleague Mike Carlucci, a writer at our Red Sox site Over The Monster, put it:

The idea that you lose the DH when the starter is gone is just so backwards. What about yesterday when Luis Garcia got hurt? Oh, an exception for injuries? Well then, a five-run first is a “strained thingamajig.”

Beyond that, there’s the “exception” of Shohei Ohtani, who DH’s many days when he’s not pitching. Would it be fair to the Angels to lose Ohtani if their starting pitcher that day gets pounded out of the game in the first or second inning? In that case the Angels’ opponent theoretically already has a big lead, now you’re going to eliminate one of the Angels’ best hitters while the opponent keeps theirs? That doesn’t seem right.

The opener is something that might come more into use in baseball over the next few seasons. That use of a pitching staff, done properly, could be a real benefit to a team. But to tie that use to the universal designated hitter is just wrong, in my view. Some of you don’t want the universal DH, I get it, and think this “compromise” is a good idea. The DH has now been in use for nearly 50 years. If we’re going to have it across MLB — and I personally hope we do — it should be done the same way it is now, with a player in the lineup as DH who can stay for the whole game.

Poll

Regarding the universal DH...

This poll is closed

  • 60%
    ... institute it with the current rule
    (338 votes)
  • 7%
    ... institute it, but take the DH out once the starting pitcher is removed
    (44 votes)
  • 29%
    ... I don’t want the DH at all, go back to pitchers batting across MLB
    (166 votes)
  • 2%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (12 votes)
560 votes total Vote Now