‘It’s not going to be pretty’: Without DH, Braves pitchers back at bat

Credit: Atlanta Braves

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Braves pitchers Charlie Morton, Ian Anderson and Max Fried comment on the absence of the designated hitter in the National League for the 2021 season.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Braves fans undoubtedly look forward to seeing the likes of Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna swing the bat this season. But fans can expect to see some awful hitters, too.

After using the designated hitter rule in all games last season, National League teams will revert to having pitchers hit, usually in utter futility.

“I much prefer the DH. I just think it’s a better game,” Braves pitcher Charlie Morton said. “It doesn’t benefit the team for me to have a bat in my hands. It just doesn’t.”

“I’m not the biggest fan of (pitchers hitting),” another member of the Braves’ starting rotation, Ian Anderson, said, “but it’s been part of the game for so long. And who knows, this could be the last go-round of it. So I’m going to try to make the most of it and maybe get a hit or two.”

If Anderson gets a hit, it would be the first of his professional career. He was 0-for-18 in the minor leagues, where pitchers rarely bat, and had the good fortune of arriving in the big leagues last year with the universal DH in use.

Anderson isn’t the only Braves starting pitcher who will be looking for his first hit in pro ball. Drew Smyly is 0-for-23 in a major-league career that dates to 2012, mostly in the American League.

Morton has a .075 career batting average in 13 seasons, going 20-for-266 and striking out in more than half of his at-bats. Mike Soroka, who the Braves hope will join their rotation by late April, is a .083 hitter in the big leagues with just five singles to show for 60 at-bats.

And then there’s opening-day starter Max Fried, who is considered a good hitter by pitcher standards with a .169 career batting average (12-for-71 with eight singles, four doubles and four RBIs).

Credit: Atlanta Braves

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Braves manager Brian Snitker talks about pitchers who 'helped themselves with a bat' on current and past rotations.

Credit: Atlanta Braves

Fried hesitated when asked which he thinks is the better game, the version with the DH or the version without it.

“It’s definitely different,” Fried said. “There’s definitely more strategy (without the DH) in being able to make substitutions and double-switches and that kind of thing. I like both.

“I enjoy hitting, that part of the game, being able to be involved and help yourself out. But I also know that I’m not the same quality hitter that a DH would be at this level. ... To be honest, I don’t have a true preference.”

Morton acknowledged it can be fun to watch the rare good-hitting pitcher take his swings, such as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Madison Bumgarner, who has 19 career homers.

“Is it fun to watch Madison Bumgarner go up there and crank one over the fence every now and then? Yeah, I mean, it’s great,” Morton said. But, among pitchers, Morton is a more typical hitter than Bumgarner.

“When I go up there, I’m taking the spot of somebody that is grinding in Triple-A or somebody that is on the bench and would love an at-bat,” Morton said. “I’m up there with a .070-something career average — we looked it up the other day — (and) it takes away from the game for somebody like me to be up there swinging a bat.”

That the National League won’t use the designated hitter rule this year, except in road games against American League opponents, typifies the poor relationship between MLB and the Players Association. NL players, managers and executives overwhelmingly embraced the DH last year, when it was implemented for the shortened season under health and safety protocols. Keeping it this year would have required an agreement between MLB and the union.

MLB — read: the owners — saw the DH as an economic benefit for the players and wanted approval of expanded playoffs in return. The union rejected that swap. So, barring a last-minute or in-season change, no DH in NL stadiums this year.

Morton is among those surprised a deal didn’t get done.

“Yeah, because I feel like the benefits are mutual,” he said. “For me, I came into camp still expecting they were going to work something out. And certainly, in the offseason, I thought it would be probably 1A on the priority list.”

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Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton lays down a bunt against the Atlanta Braves Saturday, May 22, 2010, in Pittsburgh. Morton, who rejoined the Braves for the 2021 season, is a career .075 hitter. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Credit: Keith Srakocic

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton lays down a bunt against the Atlanta Braves Saturday, May 22, 2010, in Pittsburgh. Morton, who rejoined the Braves for the 2021 season, is a career .075 hitter. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Credit: Keith Srakocic

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Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton lays down a bunt against the Atlanta Braves Saturday, May 22, 2010, in Pittsburgh. Morton, who rejoined the Braves for the 2021 season, is a career .075 hitter. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

Credit: Keith Srakocic

Credit: Keith Srakocic

Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1, and all parties expect a universal DH to emerge from contentious negotiations on the next CBA. That would make 2021 the last year in which pitchers go to bat.

“Max Fried has probably got one chance left to hit a homer,” Freeman said with a laugh earlier this month. “We’ll see if he can do it.”

With Fried somewhat of an exception, expectations are appropriately low for pitchers’ first at-bats since 2019, when they hit .128 as a group.

“Hitting a round ball with a round bat is already hard enough,” Freeman said, “and then giving these guys a whole year and a half pretty much off of doing that — they’re not good hitters anyway — is going to make it even worse.”

“It’s not going to be pretty,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said, although he praised how diligently his pitchers have worked on their hitting and bunting in spring training.

“We’ve done a lot of days of swinging in the cage, a lot of bunting off the machine, a lot of the basics to reacclimate ourselves to getting back in the box,” Fried said. “It’s definitely a big learning curve again.”

Asked how he’ll approach hitting, the hitless Anderson said: “Get the bunt down is the first approach.”

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Braves pitcher Ian Anderson hasn't wielded a bat since his days in minors where he went hitless in 18 recorded appearances at the plate. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Braves pitcher Ian Anderson hasn't wielded a bat since his days in minors where he went hitless in 18 recorded appearances at the plate. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

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Braves pitcher Ian Anderson hasn't wielded a bat since his days in minors where he went hitless in 18 recorded appearances at the plate. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

In an era in which teams go to great lengths to protect their pitchers, batting and baserunning expose them to an added risk of injury, particularly after 18 months without doing either. “It’s something that is definitely a possibility,” Fried said. The concern was underscored this month when Diamondbacks right-handed pitcher Zac Gallen suffered a hairline fracture of his right forearm when jammed by a pitch during batting practice.

American League teams have used the designated hitter since 1973, but until last year National League teams had used it only in inter-league games in which the AL club was the home team. Many NL traditionalists, who long opposed the DH, discovered to their surprise last year that they found it palatable, even preferable.

“I liked the DH, I know that,” Snitker said. “Pitchers were better hitters (in the past) because they grew up hitting. These days, they don’t even pick up a bat when they’re growing up anymore. I think for every Adam Wainwright (10 career homers with St. Louis) and Madison Bumgarner and Max Fried, there’s 10 others that have never hit.”

It’ll show this year.

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