When Orioles' pitchers used to hit: 'I held my own' - BaltimoreBaseball.com
Rich Dubroff

When Orioles’ pitchers used to hit: ‘I held my own’

Photo Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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Generations of Orioles fans have grown up without watching their team’s pitchers hit. The designated hitter was adopted by the American League for the 1973 season, and since 2022, it’s been used by the National League as well, making pitchers’ at-bats rare.

Before that, pitchers batted ninth. If a runner was on base, they often would be asked to lay down a sacrifice bunt. Most weren’t accomplished hitters, but there were exceptions.

Some of the best Oriole pitchers had memorable batting moments. Dave McNally hit nine home runs in the regular season, and two in the postseason, including a grand slam in the 1970 World Series. Jim Palmer hit three in his Hall of Fame career.

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You aren’t likely to see Dean Kremer or Grayson Rodriguez take an at-bat, and most fans don’t mind that. But some pitchers miss the chance to swing a bat.

Pitchers don’t want to hear, “they hit well for a pitcher,” just as Adley Rutschman doesn’t want to hear he “runs well for a catcher,” but Corbin Burnes did hit well for a pitcher.

In 2021, the last year before the universal DH, Burnes hit .152 (8-for-52) with four RBIs for the Milwaukee Brewers.

“I held my own,” Burnes said. “I wouldn’t say I was good. For a pitcher, maybe you could put me above average. I got to face a lot of the best arms in the game.”

Burnes faced Jacob deGrom, Jon Lester and Adam Wainwright.

“I grew up as a middle infielder, hitting and getting to play the field,” he said. “Hitting in the big leagues, I could still hold on to that little kid in me.”

Burnes also enjoyed the strategy involved when pitchers hit. If runs were needed late in a close game, a manager would have to decide whether to stay with his pitcher or pinch-hit.

“I think more importantly I liked having a pitcher in the lineup hitting. I always enjoyed navigating lineups with the pitcher in it. It’s a lot different baseball when you’re going through a lineup three, four times when you’ve got that pitcher at the bottom, knowing you can do some things and pitch around some guys.”

Manager Brandon Hyde saw pitchers hit when he was a coach for the Marlins and Cubs. He and bench coach Fredi González use their National League experience when they pinch-hit for catcher James McCann and move Rutschman from designated hitter to behind the plate, thereby removing the DH.

Minus a designated hitter, the pitcher would have to hit, but Hyde will double-switch to reduce the chance that a pitcher has to hit.

“I do like managing the National League game better,” he said. “I think it’s way more strategic. It gives you way more things to think about.”

From 1997-2019, and again in 2021, American League teams couldn’t use the DH when they played in National League parks, and pitchers were required to hit. During the truncated 60-game 2020 season, the DH was used, and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2022 introduced the universal DH. Burnes wasn’t necessarily in favor of it.

“I felt there was a lot more strategy involved,” he said. “From a pitcher’s standpoint, from a manager’s standpoint, there’s double switches and all the defensive replacements. That’s a part of the game that I miss, but for the better, keeping guys from getting hurt and getting out there and running bases, getting tired. Gives us a chance to pitch a lot longer in games and really extend our careers.”

Cole Irvin is 2-for-11 (.182) with an RBI. He got to hit with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019 and had a handful of at-bats with Oakland in 2021.

“I loved hitting,” Irvin said. “It was fun being able to go into the offseason and train to still be an athlete. I had a lot of fun in the minor leagues. I had a ton of pinch-hits in Double-A to bunt or to do some other things. I can handle a bat. I grew up on the West Coast. Getting bunts down was basically ingrained in us.”

Some of the Orioles’ relievers have hit in late innings. Danny Coulombe, Craig Kimbrel and Jacob Webb have combined for seven strikeouts in seven at-bats.

“I love hitting, but it’s probably good for the game the way it is now,” Coulombe said. “It always added some comic relief, especially when a [relief] pitcher comes up to hit. It was always kind of a funny thing, especially when an American League team went to play a National League team.”

In Little League, American Legion and high school, pitchers were often the best athletes on their team and played another position on days they didn’t pitch.

“I was probably a better hitter than I was a pitcher and realistically if I was a right-hander, I probably could have played Division 1 outfield,” Coulombe said. “Being left-handed and having a good curveball, you’re going to be on the mound. I do want to set the record straight. I did get two at-bats in the big leagues. I did not get a hit, but I wasn’t allowed to swing in both [at-bats]. I didn’t get an opportunity to hit—just for the record.”

When Kimbrel isn’t amassing saves, he’s shagging fly balls in the outfield in batting practice. He played the infield and outfield as a youngster.

“I still love to swing the bat,” he said. “It’s part of baseball. As pitchers, we all hit growing up. But do I miss seeing it in the game? Not really. I think the DH in both leagues and the pitchers not going up there, you don’t have to worry about pitchers getting hurt at the plate, on the bases, that kind of stuff. But for the overall athleticism, I think that any time you saw pitchers go out there and handle the bat well, it’s always pretty impressive. I do miss seeing that.”

Webb got three at-bats with Atlanta in 2019 and 2021. He couldn’t wait to get to the plate, and he was sent back to the dugout quickly to join Braves manager Brian Snitker.

“I only got three at-bats, two of the guys were throwing 95-plus,” Webb said. “I hadn’t seen pitching really like that since high school, and in high school, they weren’t throwing that hard. I wouldn’t call it hitting. It’s tough because it’s probably the only at-bat I’ll get in my life. I figured, ‘why not swing at least one time.’ I swung when there was two strikes on that occasion.

“Skipper wasn’t very happy with me after that. The other at-bats they said, ‘don’t hurt yourself, just go up there, if you can make contact, make contact. We’re not really expecting much here. You ‘re coming up because we don’t want to waste guys coming off the bench.’”

Yennier Cano hasn’t swung a bat in 15 years, and it’s not something he’s eager to do.

“I hit in Cuba until I was 15 years old,” he said through Orioles’ interpreter Brandon Quinones. “In Cuba, they don’t allow you to throw breaking balls until you’re 15 years old, so when they started throwing sliders and curveballs I had enough of it. I don’t think I’d be up for it.”

Hitting, or the idea of hitting makes some pitchers happy. When the Orioles were playing an NL team, pitchers took batting practice several days before those games. Now, they can’t do that—even for fun, and some stories are lost. One happened when Coulombe was playing for the Dodgers’ Triple-A team in Oklahoma City in 2015.

“They frown upon that now,” Coulombe said. “If you hurt your oblique, they’d probably be pretty upset. I actually got an at-bat in the minors. I got a hit, and the best part of it, the [current Orioles’] Triple-A manager, Buck Britton, he hit a walk-off homer the next pitch.”

Most pitchers realize that facing a fireballer these days is unfair. Webb’s last at-bat was against New York Mets’ reliever Jeurys Familia in 2021.

“Familia throwing 98, it looked like a ping-pong ball coming in,” Webb said. “It wasn’t very fun. It’s a cool experience, regardless to be able to get an at-bat against a big league pitcher. Not many guys do now. It doesn’t really exist now.”

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