Like all 15 National League teams, the New York Mets must quickly reintegrate pitchers into hitting and running the bases during spring training games, as Opening Day hovers only three weeks away.
That hasn’t happened in game action since the 2019 postseason and for many of those teams, not since the end of that regular season; MLB utilized the universal designated hitter last year as a health and safety precaution during 2020’s COVID-abbreviated 60-game slate.
The Mets are pushing back pitchers’ plate appearances as long as they can. By custom, prior to a spring game, the competing clubs that day can determine whether each team will use a DH or allow the pitcher to hit. There doesn’t have to be uniformity.
“We’ve been waiting to see if there’s going to be a DH,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said from Port St. Lucie, Fla., the other day. “That definitely would help with a lot of things going on just to keep people healthy. We have a sort of bubble, and the less action pitchers have on the offensive end the safer we can be.”
Up until now, all teams still have been using the DH in spring training games along with a host of other rules. But as of Sunday that will change. Relief pitchers again will be facing the three-batter limit under most circumstances, and the length of games will mostly stretch a full nine innings to give pitchers and hitters the necessary reps to prepare for the renewal of a 162-game season.
In the NL, pitchers must prepare again to be part of the offensive action, giving those teams a distinct competitive disadvantage against their American League counterparts. According to rule and the last year of the current five-year Basic Agreement, the AL will utilize the DH again as that league has done every season since junior circuit’s pitchers stopped hitting in 1973.
Rojas could keep waiting for a belated rule change, as occurred last year, when players and owners mutually agreed to the universal DH about a month before the season started. But Rojas might as well be Waiting for Godot, the Samuel Beckett play in which one waits for something to happen that never happens.
“Right now, I’ve got to say there’s no chance,” Rojas said. “That’s how I’ve got to approach it.”
He’s right. There’s currently no movement between MLB and the Players Association regarding using the DH again this coming season. Management tried to barter the universal DH this offseason in exchange for expanding the playoffs. That was a non-starter for the union because the players feel they are different issues, which were bargained separately and successfully last year under much more trying circumstances.
Although some traditional fans still yearn for the day when NL pitchers hit, bunted and were flip-flopped around the lineup throughout the course of a single contest, many around the game are baffled that the universal DH wasn’t renewed as a health and safety issue.
But events could still change the landscape between now and April 1, especially if something happens to a high-payroll pitcher. Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals already has a slight right hamstring injury that could be damaged more by hitting. If another star NL pitcher like Jacob deGrom of the Mets sustains a leg or rib cage injury hitting during a spring game, you could see a change of attitude.
The Mets and Nationals are paying a combined $56.5 million in guaranteed salary this season to deGrom and Scherzer, $22 million to deGrom, and $34.5 million to Scherzer. Meanwhile, the San Diego Padres are paying $34.5 million to three starting pitchers acquired in trades during the offseason: $19 million to Yu Darvish, $11.1 million to Blake Snell, and $4.45 million to Joe Musgrove.
“We want to make sure we’re prepared,” said Padres manager Jayce Tingler from Peoria, Ariz. “At the same time we don’t want to have setbacks or fluke accidents, or anything like that.”
It’s no wonder Rojas is reluctant to slip deGrom into the lineup as a hitter right now.
“Initially in my head we were going to start [hitting pitchers again] after the 10th, but that’s not happening on Thursday with Jake pitching,” Rojas said. “Maybe the next time around we will, or even a little later if we have to.”
This trepidation is widespread among the five NL managers Sportico spoke to on the subject.
Like Rojas, Gabe Kapler of the San Francisco Giants said he’s in no hurry to have his pitchers hit.
“I’m of the mindset that we’ll get there when we get there,” he said. “There’s not a real rush. Is getting them four or five plate appearances [during the spring] going to make them substantially better during a [regular season] game? I’m not sure. We’re not really sure we can get them at-bats in games without taking away reps from [position] players who really need them.”
Torey Lovullo of the Arizona Diamondbacks said pitchers are beginning to bunt and take batting practice swings on the backfields of the Talking Stick complex, but they’re not ready to hit in exhibition games.
“We’re within a week of that happening,” he said. “We wanted to be mindful of what they missed last year so we started their hitting progression basically on Day 1 of spring training. Because of the time they missed we wanted them to get familiar again with the bat. We stress the importance of what they go do inside of a lineup to help us win some games. They’ve taken it very seriously.”
David Ross of the Chicago Cubs said he’s also easing his pitchers into hitting again, but they’re more than a week away from doing so live again in games.
“The rules are the rules, and I’m not one to change the rules,” he said. “My job is to plan for these guys to get their reps, get on the bases again to get in condition, just the small things they’ve got to deal with, which is going to be a change. From our standpoint, I can understand the concern. I’ll talk to other managers and see how it lines up for them as well.”