In baseball, pitchers who can occasionally swing a bat are just a novelty

Gregg Patton writes the likes of Madison Bumgarner and Bartolo Colon sometimes not failing does not make for a convincing argument against the designated hitter.

Zack Greinke of the Arizona Diamondbacks bunts during a game against the Tamp Bay Rays on Tuesday. Norm Hall / Getty Images / AFP / June 7, 2016
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Pitcher Madison Bumgarner has been lobbying to get into the Home Run Derby during All-Star festivities, touting his 13 career homers.

Last month, right-hander Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets hit two home runs in a game, accounting for all of his team’s scoring.

When pitcher Tyson Ross of the San Diego Padres hits the ball, the average exit velocity off the bat is 93.5 miles per hour. That means he hits the ball harder than Bryce Harper and most of the rest of baseball’s celebrated sluggers.

The sport seems to be teeming with such fun stories, perhaps not coincidentally at the same time Commissioner Rob Manfred wrestles with the issue of uniformity: that is, bringing the designated hitter to the National League and doing away with pitchers hitting in both leagues.

Traditionalists and NL fans, of course, revolt over the idea. They argue that the NL game requires more strategy, tests managers’ abilities more and, yes, provides the occasional surprise of a pitcher coming through with the bat.

The key word is “occasional”. In fact, pitchers trying their luck in the batters box is one of the great killjoys of the game 90 per cent of the time.

Take Bartolo Colon, Syndergaard’s teammate. Last month, the 42-year-old delighted the sport when he became the oldest player to hit his first home run. Before that Colon was so pathetic at the plate that he inspired a collection of worst-swing videos.

Funny stuff. Mainly because if fans of the Mets didn’t laugh they would cry. Even worse than most pitchers, Colon has always been a hopeless rally-killer. A human rain cloud coming to bat.

Even the best hitting pitchers aren’t all that special. Zack Greinke has been called the toughest out among pitchers. He is 8-for-29 this year, with one double and two runs batted in.

Bumgarner may have 11 home runs over the last three years, but when he doesn’t meet the ball square with one of his all-or-nothing hacks, he’s awful. He has 14 strikeouts in 34 at bats this year, with a .147 batting average.

But the San Francisco Giants lefty is newsy. Two of his career home runs are against baseball’s best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw. And he recently entertained his teammates and a small media contingent by taking batting practice in St Louis. He hit several mammoth shots, including one into the upper deck where local observers say only Seattle Mariners bomber Nelson Cruz has parked one.

But the chances of Bumgarner participating in the derby next month are about as likely as him pitching a game right-handed. The Giants won’t let their ace risk injuring a muscle or a joint trying to belt the cover off the ball for an hour.

“He’s convinced he could win it,” his manager Bruce Bochy told reporters. “I can’t let him do it.”

Indeed, the fact that a few pitchers have developed a modicum of skills with a bat doesn’t make for a convincing argument against the designated hitter.

American League fans are more than happy watching their teams put together rallies, knowing that everyone in the line-up is proficient at the job. Knowing that the No 8 hitter won’t be walked intentionally so that a starting pitcher has to come to the plate with two outs and the bases loaded, a likely strikeout victim.

For designated hitter fans, the occasional surprise by a pitcher isn’t worth the long wait. If baseball does put the DH in the NL, “hitters” like Colon – and Bumgarner – won’t be missed for long.

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