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Universal DH Could Spell End of Hitting PItchers

ATLANTA — You could just about hear Tom Glavine’s familiar grimace through the telephone.

After generations of arguing and bickering and purity testing, this Sunday, he knew, might be the end of pitchers routinely hitting (or trying to) in Major League Baseball.

“Take the brutality, so to speak, of what pitcher hitting has become, and I still feel like it allows for way more strategy in the National League,” Glavine, a Hall of Fame left-hander who hit .203 or better in nine of his 22 seasons, lamented. “I’m hoping that that part of the argument will certainly be a strong one, but it seems now that there’s more momentum than ever to get rid of it.”

Whether pitchers’ plate appearances are a righteous tradition or a time-honored, time-wasting embarrassment, they could largely vanish by 2022’s Opening Day. Baseball’s next collective bargaining agreement is still being negotiated, and one major change being considered is the adoption of a universal designated hitter. If that happens, Game 5 of this year’s World Series, which Atlanta will host in its National League stadium on Sunday night, would be the last time pitchers were compelled by rule to bat.

“I really enjoy hitting, but it’s good for the game,” Max Fried, an Atlanta pitcher and a finalist for one of this year’s Silver Slugger Awards, said of the potential rule change.

“At the end of the day, for me to go out and hit every five days, or be a pitcher that’s hitting, it’s not as good as having a guy whose job is to hit,” said Fried, who hit .273 this season. “I understand it, but I will miss it — extremely.”

Another star of Atlanta’s rotation, Charlie Morton, said he would not miss hitting: “I actively try not to think about it even now.”

Pitchers would still be allowed to hit in an era of a universal D.H. Most, though, would not if a bit of baseball’s past is left on the bargaining table and the American and National Leagues permanently align on the matter for the first time in almost a half-century. (Baseball temporarily adopted a universal D.H. for the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season.)

The designated hitter rule was conceived as a way to dial up offense after years of dismal hitting and, in turn, generate more money and interest in the sport. The American League adopted the D.H. in 1973, in what was designed as a three-season experiment. The National League’s disdain was evident from the start. “We like the game the way it is,” Charles S. Feeney, the N.L. president, said at the time. It never adopted the rule.

But the A.L. has bested the N.L. in batting average ever since, including by 15 points in 1989 and 1996. The gap has been far narrower in some recent seasons, like a 3-point margin this year, when, at .244, the M.L.B. average tied its fifth-lowest mark since 1871.

The decades since the dawn of the D.H. also have seen pitching emerge as even more of a discipline, and drawn increased attention to the risks that pitchers face whenever they step into the batter’s box or wind up on the basepaths. And so even some N.L. stalwarts have started to stray from their historically party-line opposition.

“For every Adam Wainwright, there’s 10 guys that can’t hit,” Atlanta Manager Brian Snitker said, referring to the St. Louis pitcher who has driven in a comparatively impressive 75 runs in his 16 big league seasons. “They don’t hit anymore at a young age, they’re specializing in pitching or whatever at a young age, so after experiencing it last year, I’m all for the D.H.”

Of course, there are exceptions.

Shohei Ohtani reached the All-Star Game this year as both a pitcher and a D.H. The breakout star for the Los Angeles Angels hit 46 home runs and a major league-leading eight triples, while posting a 9-2 record as a pitcher with 156 strikeouts and an E.R.A. of 3.18.

While not coming close to matching Ohtani’s mastery at the plate, others have at least shown some occasional pop. Madison Bumgarner, the Arizona pitcher, has 109 hits, including 19 home runs, across his 13 seasons, and Jake Arrieta, of the Cubs, has homered six times in his career, including once off Bumgarner in a playoff game.

For the most part, though, National League pitchers come to the plate, see a few pitches and sometimes feebly swing at them. That bothers people like Glavine, who prided themselves on forcing opponents to reckon with them as more than easy outs.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell you I was a great hitter, but as a pitcher, I was certainly a good hitter, and I felt like my ability to do that was an advantage every time I went out on the mound,” Glavine said. “I wasn’t necessarily going to get an R.B.I. base hit or whatever, but I knew two things: No. 1, if I had to bunt, I was going to get the bunt down, and No. 2, I wasn’t going to be an automatic out.”

Or, as Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles ace who once pitched a complete-game shutout and hit the afternoon’s winning home run, put it: “Baseball is a two-sided game, offense and defense. I think you should have to play both even if you’re not good at one.”

Kershaw finds himself intrigued by the so-called double-hook rule, which would force a team to forfeit its D.H. once its starting pitcher leaves the game, thus offering an incentive to emphasize starters rather than relievers. It is not clear whether the major leagues, which watched with interest while the independent Atlantic League tested the approach this year, would include such a provision in a rewritten rule book.

Morton, a postseason stalwart who left Game 1 with a broken leg, argues that most modern pitchers simply have no place in the batting order.

“I’m always late to the on-deck circle, just because I need to unplug for a minute, and I like to worry about the job that I have to do on the mound,” Morton said before a National League Championship Series game. “That’s what I’m paid to do, that’s what I’m prepared to do, spend the vast majority of my time doing. They’re paying guys lots of money and guys are working their tails off trying to be good hitters, and I’m up there taking at-bats.”

Plus, he said, he doesn’t love pitching to pitchers.

“It’s a lose-lose situation to me because they’re not supposed to get a hit,” said Morton, whose 2016 season ended when he tore his hamstring while running to first base after a bunt.

Morton is on course to get his wish.

And while the game’s elder statesmen might object to the change, and players like Bumgarner may lobby to continue to hit for themselves, at least one reliever contends he has something to gain from losing the expectation that he might be asked to bat.

Will Smith has been around the N.L. since 2014 but his lone official at-bat came in 2019, when he was with the Giants. With runners on second and third, Smith, now Atlanta’s closer, lashed a 3-1 fastball to right field for a two-run single.

Never mind that Bryce Harper nearly threw him out at first.

“I finished with a 1.000 career batting average, so I’m OK with that,” he said.

James Wagner contributed reporting.

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