The Pirates open their season in an American League city for the first time ever. This sets up the abnormality of having their Opening Day lineup featuring a Designated Hitter. We take a closer look at the who the Pirates Designated Hitter could be on April 3rd:
One of the curiosities of baseball is the National League’s continued insistence on making pitcher’s bat. For years the difference between the two leagues only mattered during the World Series. However, since the introduction of interleague play in 1997 the incongruent rules have made little sense. To reconcile the issue, Major League Baseball uses the home team rules. Because of this the Pirates, who open the season in Boston, will have a Designated Hitter in their Opening Day lineup for the first time ever.
Now for a quick history lesson! Before 2013, interleague play was typically confined to June and July. When the Houston Astros moved to the American League, interleague play expanded and played throughout the season. Though interleague play has begun with Opening Day since then, this will be the first season that the Pirates open the season on the road against an American League team.
Now for a quick rant! I have made my preference for the Designated Hitter rule no secret on this site and to my dozens of twitter followers in the past. I understand the argument of it taking away a key strategic element of the game. Additionally, I love it as much as the next person when a pitcher comes up with a Home Run or key hit. However, these are such celebrated and noteworthy occurrences because they are so rare. One has to sit through many hard-to-watch plate appearances that typically end in a strikeout or weak grounder to get to those rare big hits. I am of the opinion that having pitchers bat is an anachronism from before pitching became a specialized skill. The game has evolved and the rules need to as well.
Pirates and the Designated Hitter
Going back to the Pirates, to state the obvious, they don’t typically play with a Designated Hitter. In fact it amounts to exactly 10 games a year under the current schedule composition. American League teams typically use players who are relatively poor fielders but can still hit the ball relatively well to be their Designated Hitters. Oftentimes, this is an older power hitter who can still hit well, but whose skills in the field have deteriorated. Albert Pujols is a good example of this type of player. In his first year with the Angels in the American League he started 22% of his games as a DH, but that figure was up to 81% last season, his Age 36 season. Pedro Alvarez, with his big bat but horrendous fielding, is of course another typical Designated Hitter.
The Pirates don’t have an obvious Designated Hitter on their roster. This makes sense given how few games they can play with one. Matt Joyce was the obvious Designated Hitter last season. Joyce was a hitter with power potential who came off the bench to fill in a corner outfield spot when necessary in 2016. Over the Pirates’ 10 games in American League parks in 2016, Joyce and then-Right Fielder Gregory Polanco hit as Designated Hitters in 8 of them. Matt Joyce is gone now, so someone else will be the Pirates’ Designated Hitter when needed.
The following are the most likely Designated Hitter options when the Pirates open the season against the Red Sox. They are in order from least to most likely in my opinion. For this projection, I’m assuming that reigning Rick Porcello will get the Opening Day start for Boston.
Kang played one game as a Designated Hitter last season. Despite this, he’s the least likely of the options given for several reasons. For one, he’s not exactly a liability in the field. Additionally, the Pirates likely don’t have a super-utility infielder of the quality of 2016 Sean Rodriguez. Because of this the Pirates are generally better with his glove and bat, rather than exclusively the latter. Additionally, his availability for Opening Day is still up in the air as the punishment from his DUI in South Korea in December and any subsequent punishment from Major League Baseball is unknown right now.
Since winning a Gold Glove in 2012, Cutch’s fielding ability has been in decline. Last season it dropped precipitously, prompting his move to Right Field this offseason. McCutchen’s future could conceivably be as a Designated Hitter for an American League team (see Albert Pujols). It’s likely not the time for this yet though. For one, McCutchen will likely be more effective as a Right Fielder and could see a noticeable improvement in his defensive performance this season. Additionally, and this is the case with Kang as well, the Pirates will likely want to use a Left-handed bat to combat the Right-handed Porcello. It’s possible that McCutchen gets a start as a DH against an AL southpaw at some point this season though.
Polanco started 4 games as a Designated Hitter last season, tied for most on the team with Joyce. This alone makes him a prime candidate to be the Designated Hitter on Opening Day. Other marks in this favor are his Left-handedness and his position in a corner outfield spot. The reason that I don’t think he will be the guy though is twofold. The first has to do with his average to above average advanced fielding stats. Also, there is the reality that the Pirates don’t have a true fourth outfielder. This second point applies to McCutchen as well.
Frazier had a pretty good first season in 2016. He was a fairly good hitter in limited appearances in 2016, slashing .301/.356/.411. His status as a lefty with more experienced players ahead of him in the field make him a candidate to be the Opening Day DH. He hasn’t been in the field enough to really get a sense of how necessary he is or whether he’s a liability there though. However, Frazier will likely be used as a utility player off the bench this season. Additionally, there is a much better candidate.
Bell checks off a lot of the boxes for a Designated Hitter. He proved last year that he can hit at a Major League level, slashing .273/.368/.406 in 45 games. However, he proved to be a liability in the field. The Pirates do hope that Bell’s fielding will improve and that he will become the long-term solution at First Base. In the meantime, he is a great candidate to be Designated Hitter on Opening Day. Additionally, with a Right-handed pitcher starting for Boston, lefty John Jaso can man first base. Doing this would allow the Pirates to maximize their lineup on Opening Day.
*Stats courtesy of fangraphs and baseball reference