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Jimmy Nelson and the Case for Eliminating the Designated Hitter

Sep. 11, 2017
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Photo credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

With one glaring exception, it was a pretty good weekend for the Milwaukee Brewers. Their sweep in Chicago erased memories of getting swept in Cincinnati and brought them back within two games of first place in the NL Central for the first time in about three weeks. Given their success, it’s hard not to wonder how good they could have been if they’d gotten full, healthy seasons from Junior Guerra, Chase Anderson and now Jimmy Nelson.

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On Friday night, Nelson became the third Brewers pitcher in 2017 to injure himself on offense. His awkward slide back into first base following a single off of the wall at Wrigley Field resulted in multiple shoulder injuries, most notably a partially torn labrum. His season is over at this point and it remains unclear if he will need surgery that could limit his availability in 2018.

As is always the case, a pitcher of Nelson’s caliber getting injured while batting led to an immediate knee-jerk reaction from fans and pundits alike who want to see Major League Baseball expand the designated hitter rule to both leagues. But on the flip side, one could just as easily use Nelson’s injury to make the case for abolishing the rule altogether, at all levels of baseball.

Consider Nelson’s case once again. Nelson made his collegiate debut as a freshman with Alabama in 2008, was drafted by the Brewers in 2010 and reached the AA level with Huntsville in 2012. For nearly five full years he played in leagues that employ the designated hitter rule, and as such he made zero collegiate or professional plate appearances over that time.

At the AA and AAA levels of the minors pitchers are allowed to hit, but only in games featuring two teams that are both affiliated with National League clubs. Nelson made just six plate appearances with Huntsville in 2012, 33 more in 2013 and 25 in 2014. Having barely swung a bat for seven years, it was hardly surprising that he struggled to hit advanced pitching: At the time of his callup in 2014 Nelson was 0-for-59 at the plate as a professional. As a major leaguer he has reached base safely just 23 times in five seasons, posting a .103 batting average with a .122 on-base percentage and .114 slugging.

Major League Baseball features, as you might imagine, the best pitchers in the world. The vast majority of all professional position players struggle to hit advanced pitching despite working on it every day. It should come as no shock, then, that young MLB pitchers are poorly equipped to succeed at the plate after barely swinging a bat a handful of times in the minors. All the way up the ladder, the people in charge of their development have nearly completely neglected to prepare them for this element of the game. It’s even worse for pitchers developed by AL teams: Zach Davies, drafted by the Orioles, had a total of nine professional at bats before joining the Brewers in 2015.

The issue, however, is not just that pitchers are ineffective at the plate: It’s that they’re awkward. Consider Lewis Brinson, for a moment: Over his six professional seasons he’s reached base 840 times. Nelson, for contrast, has gotten a hit or drawn a walk 26 times over that same timeframe (and not once in the five years before). Is it any wonder that Brinson and other developing position players know how to perform a headfirst slide without injuring themselves, but Nelson didn’t?

Nelson’s injury is a convenient opportunity for those with an anti-DH agenda to seize the conversation. It’s true that if pitchers didn’t hit, they wouldn’t face this risk of injury. If baseball eliminated the DH and taught young pitchers to hit and run the bases, however, perhaps sending them to the plate wouldn’t be so risky.

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