On July 9, 1989, New York Mets reliever Rick Aguilera beat Norm Charlton and the Cincinnati Reds 4-3. What's so magical about this feat? Absolutely nothing. What is magical is something Rick Aguilera could do that pitchers of his era could not - hit.
During Aguilera's 16-year career, he batted a better-than-average .201 for pitchers, including 3 home runs. Scoff at that if you like, but he batted .278 in his first major league season with the Mets. In fact, he became the first pitcher since Don Drysdale to pinch-hit in a World Series game when he did so in 1991. He flied out with the bases loaded, but yet he was asked to pinch-hit with the bases loaded in a World Series game. And he did this as a member of the Minnesota Twins - 18 years after the advent of the designated hitter rule in the American League.
So the question that often begs to be asked is, "Why don't more pitchers hit?" If the historical trends over the last 10 years are any indication, we may not be asking this question much longer.
In April, National League pitchers batted .157, but they hit nine home runs and had 53 RBI. Ten years ago, they had no homers and 32 RBI. Twenty years ago, they had no homers and 29 RBI. Thirty years ago, they had two homers and 32 RBI. Clearly, a mini-explosion is occurring offensively among pitchers. But why now?
Some might say it is largely a factor of a more offensive-minded baseball era. There are smaller ballparks and smaller strike zones, and there are harder balls and harder bats. A lot of players seem bigger and stronger for whatever reasons - including pitchers. The home run has become a defining moment over the course a game.
Pitchers, like many athletes today, use video to find ways to make themselves better. They also get daily, individual help from the hitting coach. Ten to twenty years ago, ball clubs would never have been bothered with teaching a pitcher how to hit. Just sacrifice the runner over and go back to the bench.
Young pitchers today are a part of a generation of kids who spent their teenage years bulking up and trying to hit homers. Most were the star hitters on their high school teams, and they aren't far enough removed from those days to have lost their swing. Matt Morris of the St. Louis Cardinals claims to be a lousy major-league hitter, and says he wasn't a good hitter in high school. Morris hit .400 in high school. Sorry, but that's not a lousy hitter.
All over the country, kids are going to batting cages and relentlessly pumping tokens into pitching machines. Or, they get Mom or Dad to buy one and have it installed at their homes. It's been like this for over a decade now.
In April, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, Kip Wells, hit a 457-foot home run, the longest in the history of PNC Park. Pitchers can't hit? Pitchers hit today because today's baseball culture is all about hitting. Yes, today, offensive sparks can come from the 9th position in a batting lineup. And I say great because it means we can end baseball's grand experiment.
This year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the designated hitter rule in the American League. It was supposed to be a short-lived experiment, and one to see if it infused more interest and more offense into the game. That logic might have been true then, but that same logic is not certain now. What is certain is that the designated hitter rule might be the longest experiment in the history of baseball.
If the hitting trends for pitchers over the past 10 years are of any significance, they tell us that pitchers can hit, and they are hitting better now than ever. And if pitchers can infuse more offense into the game, it certainly makes the game more interesting - and strategic.
I say kill the designated hitter rule and let pitchers take their whacks.
John C. Sinclair writes a New York Mets historical column every Wednesday on NYMFansOnly.com