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Breaking the Show: The Designated Hitter Argument Pt. 1

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Since Adam Wainwright went down for the season from an injury sustained while hitting, arguments for a universal designated hitter have soared in support. In this edition of Breaking the Show, we explore what baseball would look like if all hitters performed like pitchers.

This, 750 times.
This, 750 times.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In the first episode of Breaking the Show, we settled a long-running debate among Phillies fans regarding whether Ryan Howard or Darin Ruf should start at first base. The answer we arrived at was conclusive to an extreme degree: Darin Ruf is a far superior option to Ryan Howard. It was quite the triumph for Philadelphia sports talk radio's favorite son as the chosen one's team took Ryan Howard to school on how to play the game of baseball. While the conclusions reached in that study were vitally important to Phillies fans everywhere, it was likely uninteresting to the larger baseball community.

In this, and potentially, in subsequent explorations, we expand the scope of our study to a current issue of great import to the future of baseball. Nearly two weeks ago, noted Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright went down for the season after sustaining an Achilles injury while exiting the batters box to run out a routine pop-up. This sparked cries, both loud and numerous in nature, to abolish the National League institution of pitchers batting.

The main argument was that pitchers contribute very little offensively, and, aside from the occasional flailing swing of Bartolo Colon, provide little entertainment to an offense-hungry viewership. What the case for a universal designated hitter boils down to is an essentially capitalist argument for increased specialization where we leave hitting to the more skilled practitioners of the craft, namely, hitters.

But, what would happen, I wanted to know, if every hitter performed offensively like a pitcher. Would this really destroy baseball? Would offense disappear or would it just evolve to compensate for less contact and power? These are questions that burned, so I took to the foremost authority on the subject, MLB 15 The Show, to seek answers. Here is how I went about it.

MAKE EVERY PLAYER ON A 40-MAN ROSTER HIT LIKE A PITCHER

The first step was to find a player already in The Show who performed similarly to an average pitcher offensively. To identify that player, I took the 2014 batting line for all pitchers (.122/.153/.153) and searched for a pitcher who hit close to that line in 2014. The player I settled on was Johnny Cueto who hit .132/.157/.132 in 2014. He wasn't perfect for that line, but it seemed close enough for the the purposes of this experiment as that appears to be a relatively normal batting line for a pitcher.

I then identified all the player ratings that would affect offensive performance--Contact, Power, Bunt, Drag Bunt, Plate Vision, Plate Discipline, Batting Clutch, Speed, Steal, and Baserunning Awareness--and adjusted every player on a 40-man roster to perform offensively in Johnny Cueto's likeness. I adjusted for platoon advantage, so left-handed hitters in Contact and Power are mirror images of Cueto.

In the process of editing players I made two potentially controversial editorial decisions:

  1. I adjusted speed to match Cueto (37 overall). This was certainly necessary to prevent Billy Hamilton and others in his ilk from bunting his way to a moderately respectable batting average, but it likely affects their defense as well. I justify that defensive loss by noting that our new breed of hitter will likely live on weak contact that even plodding defenders will be able to defense adequately. There'll be a bit of inaccuracy here, but I doubt it will bring down the experiment.
  2. For switch hitters, they received the higher Contact and Power attributes of the two. Cueto has a contact/power split of 13/6 v. left-handed pitching and 9/5 v. right-handed pitching. Switch hitters will be 13/6 against both. This obviously puts switch hitters at a slight advantage over their less-versatile counterparts, but I'm banking on those minimal differences in ratings not manifesting themselves too noticeably in a game setting.
For an example, let's check in on Best Player In Baseball and Three One Time MVP Mike Trout:
Trout

Well, well, well, how the turn tables! One day, Mike Trout is on top of the world; the next he's buried on the Angels organizational depth chart between freaking Rolando Guzman and Darryl Saldana. But don't sweat it, dude. You've still got 100 million bones or clams or whatever you call them coming your way; you've still got that neck that's wider than your face; and, most importantly, you can still wear your hat off-kilter like a blissful college freshman after having sex for the first time. You be you, Mike. Don't let the 47 overall rating knock you off your game.

AUTOMATE LINEUP CONSTRUCTION BUT RETAIN ROSTER CONTROL

I left all lineup and pitching rotation construction to the CPU primarily to make things easier as I control all 30 teams through a simulated season, but also to see how the game adjusts. Will The Show maintain relatively traditional lineup construction, i.e., batting formerly speedy guys like Billy Hamilton leadoff and formerly powerful hitters like Giancarlo Stanton in the third and fourth spots, or will it try weird, innovative strategies in fruitless attempts to ignite offense?

I retained roster control so that the unedited players not on the 40-man roster wouldn't sneak into the game and put up gaudy .220/.300/.350 lines. That kind of offense cannot be tolerated in this world of pitchers hitting.

OPENING DAY

Before entering the first game of the season, I performed a quick scan of team lineups to see if there were already any quirky developments and, yes, there were two glaring ones. Both Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Cabrera were riding the pine for opening day for their respective teams. I get Cabrera. If you take his offense away, he doesn't add anything defensively. Stanton, however, makes less sense. Even if you take away hit bat and whatever speed, he still has a solid arm in the outfield. Given that defense has been reduced to reaction and arm, Stanton's arm should make him a premium outfield defender. Marlins gonna Marlin, I guess.

GAME 1 OF 2015

I felt it was important that we start the season with the Opening Night matchup between the Cubs and Cardinals for two reasons. First, so that we get a baseline measure of what baseball looks like before The Show starts messing around with it, if that's what it comes to. Second, the founder of this edition of Breaking The Show, Adam Wainwright, was scheduled to start against Jon Lester.

Whatever was to transpire over this long 162 game season was forgotten in the top of the first as Jhonny Peralta led off with a deep fly ball out and Jason Heyward followed up with a well-hit line drive over the head of the shortstop. It was all a mirage, though, as the inning ended in a barrage of dribblers and flailing swings.

In the top of the second, Kolten Wong led off for the Cardinals with a walk. It didn't take long for the game to figure out that offense was going to be rare, so the next batter, Mark Reynolds, with no outs in the second inning of a scoreless Opening Day game did what any respectable ballplayer would do: laid down a sacrifice bunt.

According to Baseball-Reference, Reynolds has only deployed the sacrifice bunt move on his opponent three times during his nine-year career and only once since 2008. That he is throwing down the rarest move in his arsenal in the second inning on Opening Day should probably warn us that strange deeds are afoot, not just in this game but this season.

If this was a clue that our virtual 2015 would be a smallball renaissance, The Show quickly tried to get us off the scent with some displays of offensive competence. In the bottom of the third, Tommy LaStella snuck a grounder down the third base line to score a runner from second.

It looked oddly normal for a world in which all players approach the offensive side of the game with the ability of a typical pitcher. Is The Show not accepting our dastardly inputs or are we simply witnessing some small sample variance?

The return to normalcy was short-lived, as the Cardinals reverted to their smallballing ways in the 4th after a leadoff walk from Yadier Molina--there were a surprising number of walks in this game--Kolten Wong sacrificed Molina to second.

Again, the sacrifice was for naught as our lineup of offensive impotence was unable to get Molina around from second to score. Such is life in these sad offensive times. A leadoff double is, at best, a 10% chance of scoring. You can't count on a run scoring until you physically see it with your physical eyes crossing the virtual plate. Runs are scarce and you learn to appreciate them and be genuinely surprised by their occurrence.

These baseball games are like a piñata at a 5 year-old's birthday party. For endless minutes, puny screaming kids give love taps to the tissue paper adorned animal with no hope of breaking through. Then all of a sudden--no that wasn't dad who beat a solid dent into the thing while you were distracted by an airplane--one kid's feeble hit breaks the thing open. The worst candy in the world spills everywhere. It's the worst, but 5 year-olds bite and claw with their parentally-arranged friends to emerge victorious. That's what watching one of these games is except dad isn't there to speed things along. We're left with a bunch of five year-olds poking the piñata and losing their fucking shit when the disappointing results of their pathetic labor come to bear.

And so, the first game of the season was a success in the sense that it ended and one of the two participating teams was declared a victor. That team was the Cubs. Adam Wainwright gets the loss, which is punishment for inflicting this misguided thought-experiment on us.

gm1

GAME 2: PHILLIES V. BRAVES, 5 JULY 2015

Because The Good Phight is a Phillies blog, I felt obligated to at least pretend to care about how the Phillies performed in this experiment. I chose a Phillies-Braves game in early July for a couple of reasons. The first was that this particular game was moderately topical: Chad Billingsley was starting and the real life Phillies have just finished a series with the Braves. Second, picking a game in July offered me an opportunity to provide the reader with some not-useless statistical information regarding the current state of baseball in this virtual world.

So, before we get into the game, let's how these two teams have fared in 2015.

team stats

As you can tell from their respective rankings, these teams are more or less average teams. The Phillies average less than an RBI per game; both teams strikeout over 10 opposing hitters per game; a .165 batting average is approximately average; neither team has a stolen base; they both surrender less than one home run every 20 games. Offense in our time, to paraphrase former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

The Phillies are looking to avoid a sweep and a series shutout after wasting brilliant performance from not-injured Cliff Lee and still-amazing Aaron Harang in games one and two, respectively.

review

On the hill today for the Phillies is the nicest pitcher of them all, Chad Billingsley. Let this 3-7 record be a lesson in the course titled, "Nice Guys Finish Last."

billingsley nice

And here we thought Cole Hamels wasn't getting any run support. Here we have Hanging Chad Billingsley having a season that rivals 2000 Pedro on a completely unadjusted basis yet, while Pedro took that to a 18-6 record, Chad is left hanging at 3-7. He'll have a chance to redeem himself, or, failing that, ask for a recount, tonight. Unfortunately, it's karate day at Turner Field, so Braves fans are threatening Chad with what they picked up in pre-game Karate 101 class. Just look at them carry on with their pseudo-menacing gestures in the top right corner of your screen:

braves fans

This game was painful to watch, and that's coming from a person who would much prefer to see a strikeout than a homerun. Theoretically, a game that features 39 strikeouts is must-watch television. What I've come to realize ,though, is that a tangible threat of runs scoring, the actual presence of stakes, is what makes pitching achievements enjoyable. It felt wrong to sit idly by while pitchers took advantage of our offensively emaciated hitters.

You have to feel for MLB 15: The Show commentators Matt Vasgersian, Eric Karros, and Steve Lyons. We only have to endure a handful of these games, they have to sit through 2430 regular season games, plus the All-Star game (more on that in a future installment) and the playoffs. It's enough to drive the most patient and serene among us to insanity. They, however, now at least 1000 games into their tedious schedule, and approach their craft with the same enthusiasm they took into opening day.

Their strategy for coping with declined offense seems to be to pretend it's not happening, that everyone still has 2014 attributes. Freddie Freeman, with his .180 average and 0 homeruns is still describes as powerful. Ben Revere, with his .163 average is still dangerous. That they maintain these descriptors despite only one participant with an over-Mendoza line batting average and zero hitters slugging over .300 is a triumph of human resiliency. If you ever find yourself a prisoner of war, and are allowed to pick one person to accompany you through the torture and general misery of the experience, pick one of Vasgersian, Karros, and Lyons. They'll keep morale at 100.

After 11 inning of scoreless baseball and no legitimate scoring threats, I was losing hope. This game was going to go on forever. Pitchers were just too good relative to their competition. But then the Phillies got it going. After a leadoff double from Grady Sizemore, Craig Kimbrel unleashed a pitch that was too much for the catcher to handle.

advance

Offense in our time indeed.

With a runner on third and one out, Ryne Sandberg knew that this was his time to show off his managerial chops. If ever there was an era and situation for some Sandbergian smallball, this was it. So, in the top of the 12th, Sandberg called on the most dastardly trick in his book: the suicide squeeze, or, to fit the parlance of Karate day, the harakiri squeeze:

squeeze

Sandball has won and its creator, Ryne Sandberg i going to revel in the joy of his world. This is his world where bunts and the methodical advancement of baserunners through acts of personal sacrifice are essential to victory. Are we looking at the manager of the year? We don't know the answer to this question, but it's clear that Sandberg is very much in his element in this era of incompetence.

sandberg content

I don't need to tell you that the Braves were unable to score off Jonathan Papelbon in the bottom of the 12th. The Phillies won and, honestly, it didn't feel much different from watching the real life 2015 Phillies. Over 12 innings, these teams combined to put up 8 hits and 1 run. That's fun to watch in absolutely zero possible worlds. If you didn't have to watch it, though, the pitching lines it generated were kind of fun in theory:

Phillies pitchers:

Pitcher IP H R ER BB SO ERA
Billingsley 7 3 0 0 2 10 0.65
J. De Fratus 1 0 0 0 0 2 0.83
K. Giles 2 1 0 0 1 3 0.9
J. Diekman (W, 2-4) 1 0 0 0 1 3 1.09
J. Papelbon (S, 6) 1 0 0 0 0 2 0.78
Totals 12 4 0 0 4 20

Braves pitchers:

Pitcher IP H R ER BB SO ERA
A. Wood 8 1 0 0 3 12 1.02
J. Grilli 2 0 0 0 0 4 0.33
C. Kimbrel (L, 6-4) 2 3 1 1 1 3 0.38
Totals 12 4 1 1 4 19

To call these video game numbers would be accurate in a number of ways not the least of which being that they occurred in a video game. But, even as video game numbers go, these are particularly video gamey. The year of the pitcher is upon us.

HYPE-BUILDING

These are strange times in which we virtually reside. Already, though, small insurrections are coming. Mike Trout, since the start of the season, has added two points of power and one point of contact to his attributes. Other players are following. Could this be the beginning of a revolt against the pitcher or just a futile struggle against the inevitability of a game that exists at 0-0 for perpetuity? Only time will tell.