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Dodgers pitchers are expected to hit-or-miss at the plate (mostly miss)

Clayton Kershaw takes part in batting practice before a game against the Seattle Mariners in August.
Clayton Kershaw takes part in batting practice before a game against the Seattle Mariners in August. When it comes to hitting, Kershaw remains the ace of the Dodgers’ starting pitching staff.
(Abbie Parr / Getty Images)

On Thursday night, after a so-so Cactus League start in which he mentioned eye trouble, tired legs and overthrowing as impediments, Trevor Bauer was confronted with a scary possibility: The next time he pitches, he might have to hit.

Bauer was asked whether he was looking forward to standing in the batter’s box. Not really,” he replied. “I’ll talk the coaches about it, but no.”

The Dodgers made Bauer the highest-paid player in Major League Baseball this season because they project he will remain one of the top pitchers in the sport. It wasn’t for his skills with a bat in his hands.

Bauer’s days as a two-way player ended after his freshman year at Hart High, according to Jim Ozella, the Santa Clarita school’s coach. He has six hits in 88 plate appearances between the minor and major leagues. Watching Bauer bat is a small price the Dodgers will just have to pay.

Bauer is far from alone in his struggles. Pitchers have cumulatively regressed as hitters over the years for different reasons. Velocity and movement have increased. Pitchers become specialized earlier than ever. Ultimately, they aren’t incentivized to keep up.

L.A. and Orange counties moved into the red tier of coronavirus guidelines, allowing the Dodgers and Angels to sell 20% of seats in their ballparks.

The Dodgers follow that trajectory. The franchise has a long history of dangerous hitting pitchers, from Don Newcombe and Don Drysdale in the 1950s and 1960s to Fernando Valenzuela and Rick Rhoden in the 1970s and 1980s to Zack Greinke in the last decade.

This year, the Dodgers’ stable of starters, widely regarded as the best in the majors on the mound, isn’t expected to provide much value at the plate. Nitpickers searching for holes in a club projected to win over 100 games rejoice.

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The team’s best hitting pitchers in 2019 — Hyun Jin Ryu and Kenta Maeda — aren’t around anymore. What remains is a group without much history of success.

Of the club’s top seven starting pitchers, only Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler have extra-base hits in the majors. Kershaw boasts 11 doubles, one triple, and one home run in 808 career plate appearances, on opening day in 2013. Buehler has one home run in 113 plate appearances.

David Price’s .080 batting average (four for 50) is the lowest of the group. Tony Gonsolin, a position player in college, is the best hitter of the group. The right-hander is four for 13 (.308) in the majors after going five for 14 (.357) in the minors. As of now, however, he isn’t projected to be in the starting rotation out of spring training.

Chart on how Dodgers pitchers have fared at the plate during their careers.
(Los Angeles Times)

“It’s fun when a blind squirrel finds a nut,” Buehler said, “and you get a couple of hits.”

Manager Dave Roberts said he plans on having pitchers hit in Cactus League games for the first time in the next week. Buehler said pitchers have been bunting and hitting “a couple of days a week just so you don’t hurt doing it” since reporting for spring training.

“I might have hit in the cage some last year,” Kershaw said. “It’s been a while, to say the least.”

There was a chance Kershaw and his peers wouldn’t have to worry about hitting again. This winter, after Major League Baseball implemented the designated hitter in the National League for the truncated 2020 regular season, speculation whirled about the universal designated hitter continuing in 2021.

The universal DH, once unfathomable, has seemingly drawn the approval of most people in the industry in recent years to the chagrin of the shrinking pool of purists who don’t want to see NL-style strategy die.

The Commissioner’s office wants it because pitchers hitting means less offense and worse entertainment. Teams want it because pitchers, paid millions to pitch, are protected from possible injury. Pitchers want it because they can focus on pitching. Position players want it because it would create more jobs for them.

The Dodgers lost key reserves Kiké Hernández and Joc Pederson to free agency, and the scramble to win roster spots favors those who can play multiple positions.

It would’ve been a win-win-win-win. All it needed was an agreement from the league and players union. But, in true MLB labor fashion, the owners wanted to use the universal DH as a bargaining chip to cash for expanded playoffs and the union didn’t bite. So, the universal DH is ostensibly dead for now — at least until it’s included in the next collective bargaining agreement after the current one expires Dec. 1.

After a year without hitting, the final iteration could be the uglier across the league.

“I think that there’s going to be a dropoff in performance in the batter’s box,” Roberts said. “I think the success rate for pitchers bunting will be a tick down and also because the pitchers nowadays, they keep getting better and the stuff keeps getting better. So that makes it even more difficult.”

Dodgers broadcaster and former pitcher Orel Hershiser, who retired with a .201 batting average in 949 career plate appearances, agreed.

“Definitely it’s a huge challenge because hitting is an experiential sport,” Hershiser said. “It’s not a sport that you can not do it and then, all of a sudden, you’re ready for it. You just can’t put a bat in your hand and go, ‘OK, I can hit again, I haven’t done it for a year.’”

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler takes batting practice before a game against the San Diego Padres.
Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler takes batting practice before a game against the San Diego Padres at Dodger Stadium on July 4, 2019.
(Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

The Dodgers just want their pitchers to effectively bunt when needed and escape injury. Their offense — fresh off scoring the most runs in the majors last season — should be more than good enough to absorb the hole.

Their newest acquisition doesn’t expect to help much.

Bauer’s most extensive time as a hitter in the major leagues came in the final two months of the 2019 season after Cleveland traded him to the Cincinnati Reds. He arrived in the National League city with a hit under his belt in interleague play that year. He then went two for 14 with two walks and scored a run for the Reds, doubling his career hit total and improving his career batting average to .093.

“Three more than I thought I’d get in my big league career,” he said.


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