If history has taught us anything, it might be that we, as a species, are not programmed to proactively prevent our own destruction. We instead spend eons sacrificing ourselves, not yet wholly convinced that venomous snakes can’t function as scarves or that thoughts of the tropics won’t ward off frostbite. Only after much horror do we, the survivors, eventually excise certain acts from our mutually understood realm of the acceptable.
The National League still treats pitchers as Romans did gladiators in the heyday of the Colosseum. No one really knows how they are supposed to keep the lion from devouring their mortal bodies, to avoid the imminent embarrassment of an out. Yet they are asked to try, for our amusement.
Yu Darvish, who has now faced this unfair challenge of hitting major-league pitching 40 times, might have set better judgment back some years Tuesday night when he worked a bases-loaded walk against a good reliever in a postseason game. This is how it happens. Every once in a while, someone comes along with a plan, or improvised moment of desperation, that is just crazy enough to work. These are innovators among us who, despite the disastrous macro-level consequences of their tiny successes, nonetheless deserve to be noted. What follows, then, is a survey of the most novel tactics employed by these heroes in the blood sport that is pitchers trying to hit.
THE ‘REMEMBER, HE’S MORE AFRAID OF YOU THAN YOU ARE OF HIM’
We begin with our latest, greatest underdog. Before joining up with the Dodgers, Darvish had taken just 14 stateside trips to the plate. Last summer, he even stood in the left-handed batter’s box–capitalizing on ambidexterity to shield his surgically repaired right elbow from any undue strain. On August 24, 2016, though, batting right-handed again, he homered off the Reds’ Tim Adleman. Some might argue that the Reds don’t count as a major-league pitching staff, but really, it’s a technicality.
When the deadline acquisition arrived in Los Angeles, he seems to have been indoctrinated. Using a comically low minimum of 20 plate appearances, we can see that Dodgers pitcher-hitters were four of the seven batters least likely to swing in 2017. Darvish offered only 29.3 percent of the time, more often than Brandon McCarthy (29 percent) and slightly less often than Alex Wood and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Darvish, perhaps because of efforts such as this one …
— Baseball is Fun (@flippingbats) August 17, 2017
… was the very worst “hitter” in the league at making contact.
So, when he was pushed into the glaring, ominous light to face Carl Edwards Jr. with the bases loaded in the NLCS, nothing good was going to come of acting normal. He took on the jittery aura of an animal that might be rabid? It was a brilliant, frantic brand of distraction.
He took the idea of standing on top of the plate to a new extreme. He basically danced in the batter’s box, like a second-grade class clown looking for any way to drudge up anarchy in a situation governed by rules and manners.
He was in the woods, reeking of meat, just hoping he had come upon the one bear in the county suffering from vertigo. Even once Darvish discovered he was in luck, he didn’t totally believe it. So he decided to contort himself into some sort of exaggerated Albert Belle crouch, just because!
Don’t be afraid to show weakness, kids. Sometimes it can act as a deterrent.
THE FLAIL FOR LIFE AND LIMB
While accepting the improbability of the situation might be healthy, some pitcher-hitters cross that line and go a very different direction. Not willing to stake their fates to a single long shot maneuver, they decide instead to get in as many shots as humanly possible.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, swings more often than Junior Guerra and R.A. Dickey. Guerra, having flamed out as a catcher prospect before converting to pitcher, is a bit of a special case, but Dickey seems married to the strategy of swinging away and hoping for the best. Over the past three seasons, he has gone around on two-thirds of the pitches thrown his way. It’s telling that the same rate holds steady for pitches both in and out of the zone. There is little discretion at work here, just a simple strategy of maximizing chance.
Whether it was the factor that instigated this method or a product of it, Dickey is actually quite adept at hitting the ball. Having struck out only 16 percent of the time in the big leagues, his contact rate over the past three seasons is 87.7 percent (in 73 plate appearances), slotting in between Ben Zobrist and Ichiro Suzuki.
A number of pitcher-hitters have come to the same general conclusion as Dickey in recent years. Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright each swung wildly in 2017, as did nearly every pitcher on the BABIP-courting Rockies.
THE ‘JUST PUNCH IT RIGHT IN THE NOSE’
Like swimming with sharks, attempting to hit for power is probably best left to the most daring and rugged among us.
It makes for great television, though.
THE ADAPTIVE CAMOUFLAGE
In the days before video scoreboards and PA announcers, perhaps this would have been more effective. Indians starter Trevor Bauer used a rare trip to the plate in 2015 to test out impressions of his teammates’ batting stances.
Had he stuck with one—perhaps Jason Kipnis’ pre-pitch horizontal bat hold—for a whole plate appearance or longer, maybe he could have Jedi mind-tricked his opponent into a needlessly conservative approach.
THE MAKE LIKE A TREE AND STAND THERE
The ultimate goal is a moving target in these impossible situations. Most start out dodging the jaws. Don’t get eaten alive in three pitches.
For some pitcher-hitters with a base level of competence—those who have, say, bothered to invest in their own bats—a couple of balls might open up the possibility of ambushing a middle-middle fastball and doing some damage. For others, confusion is their only prayer. They lie down and hope that somehow the aggressor surrenders or simply walks away.
It’s a calmer variation on what Darvish used in his unlikely quest to reach first base Tuesday night. Some do it out of physical necessity. Some are playing a long game, setting up a blindside attack down the road. Some probably do it because they have radically accepted their lot in life.
KNOWING the batter isn’t swinging can be more difficult to throw strikes. Ready to battle an opponent, suddenly you are battling yourself.
And maybe a few do it because they understand its weird power. It’s using a mirror against a laser in a cartoon. It places the untoward pressure of action at the feet of their would-be executioner.
Darvish took away that front door cutter by getting so close to the plate too.
Darvish, after all, didn’t ask for this. Nobody ever really asked for this. And sometimes that little bit of truth is enough to force hesitation in a fellow pitcher who could wind up a pitcher-hitter himself someday. It buys a joyous moment of reprieve, one likely to keep our hopes up for far too long.