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MLB pitchers were already bad hitters. Modern velocity has made them even worse.

Adrian Houser of the Milwaukee Brewers hits a sacrifice bunt against the Colorado Rockies. (Norm Hall/Getty Images)

In 2020, MLB gave us a taste of what it would be like to have a universal designated hitter. Batters used to replace pitchers in the National League were on par with their American League counterparts and, unsurprisingly, performed better at the plate than pitchers had under the original rules.

In 2020, an average American League DH batted .229 with a .724 OPS. The average National League DH batted .235 with a .731 OPS. The average National League pitcher, meanwhile, batted .131 with a .329 OPS in 2019. The difference between the two is equivalent to adding as many as 80 runs per 600 plate appearances to their team, compared with the average player.

If this uptick in lineup production wasn’t enough to sway you to the rule change, the increasing velocity of fastballs should. Simply put, it has made it unfair to expect pitchers to bat in modern baseball.

Even pitchers who spent the majority of their career in the National League have gotten more comfortable with the idea of the universal designated hitter (DH).

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“I have come a long way on this discussion. I like everything there is about the strategy but once interleague came into play it changed the mind-set for me,” John Smoltz, a first-ballot Hall of Fame pitcher and current Fox Sports MLB lead game analyst, said in an interview. “The competitive balance is not the same. When they had the DH last year, I thought it was a great example of how balance could be brought back and have everyone play by the same rules. And for the most part, pitchers are there to bunt. If they hit, it’s a bonus.”

The former NL Cy Young Award winner — and Silver Slugger winner as the best-hitting pitcher in 1997 — has a point. Madison Bumgarner, considered a pitcher who rakes, has a .177 career batting average. He’s also 0 for 27 in the playoffs. Clayton Kershaw crushes on Opening Day (9 for 22, career .391 hitter) but bats .152 the rest of the time. Stephen Strasburg is one of seven active pitchers with at least 10 doubles yet his career batting average is .154 with a .204 slugging rate. NL pitchers, as a whole, are batting .134 since 2006, the first year MLB instituted its leaguewide drug testing policy, with a high of .146 in 2007.

Going back further, aside from a one-year spike in 1974 — the second year of the designated hitter rule in the AL — pitchers have barely reached a collective batting average that was half as good as the rest of major league hitters and it’s been trending downward ever since. This year, their .111 combined average is 129 points lower than the league average.

Even bunting has become harder for a pitcher in recent years. The out rates on bunt attempts by pitchers have creeped up every year since 2016, and in 2021 it has soared to nearly 94 percent, which would be the highest rate since 1974, the first year there is data on the subject.

Aside from hitting not being their primary focus, most of the mediocre results from pitchers at the plate can be tied back to the increasing efficiency of fastballs around major league baseball. For example, in 2008, when fastballs averaged 90.5 mph, pitchers managed a .139 average with a .352 OPS against the pitch as a group. This year, with fastball velocity the highest it’s ever been (92.1 mph, on average), pitchers are batting .109 with a .271 OPS, recording an out more than 77 percent of the time.

As you would expect, the higher the velocity, the more futile a pitcher’s turn at the plate becomes. The velocity at the top end (90th percentile) of pitchers in 2021 has risen to nearly 97 mph, on average, with spin rates approaching 2,300 revolutions per minute, giving the pitch more speed and movement than we have ever seen. Pitchers don’t stand a chance when facing that kind of heat.

“I know hitters are getting used to it but you’re talking about a guy who pitches once every five days,” explained Smoltz. “You’re never going to get used to that velocity as you would if you were an everyday player.”

It’s not only fastballs, of course. Curveballs have more break. Sliders are filthier than ever. Change-ups so closely resemble a pitcher’s fastball its often indistinguishable until it’s too late. And then there are those hurlers who can throw any one of those pitches from the same arm slot and hit any part of the plate they want.

Pitchers at the plate can provide for some exciting moments — who didn’t love seeing Bartolo Colon hit a home run? — but it’s just not worth all the futility in between. And if a pitcher can’t even bunt successfully anymore, there is no reason to continue to let them get in the batter’s box.